Sunday, December 16

Week 389 - Bond ETFs

Situation: You want to balance your stock portfolio with safe bonds. Right? Well, here’s a news flash: You need to start thinking about balancing your bond portfolio with safe stocks. Why? Because the world is gorging itself on debt--households, municipalities, states, nations, and corporations most of all. Yes, this is understandable because the Great Recession was so disabling that central banks everywhere dropped interest rates lower than the rate of inflation. It was free money, so people borrowed the stuff and invested it. Just as the central bankers had intended. Economic activity gradually returned to normal almost everywhere, now that 10 years have passed since Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. But the Federal Open Market Committee is removing the punch bowl from the party and raising short-term interest rates by a quarter percent 3-4 times a year. Bondholders are stocking up on Advil due to interest rate risk (duration), meaning that for each 1% rise in short-term interest rates there is a material reduction in the value of an existing bond that is worse for long-term than short-term bonds. 

If a company is struggling and has to refinance a maturing issue of long-term debt, it will have to pay a materially higher rate of interest vs. that paid to holders of the expiring bond. This may impact the credit rating of its existing bonds, driving it closer to insolvency. General Electric (GE) is an especially vivid example of how this works. A few short years ago, GE had an S&P rating of AAA for its bonds. That rating is now BBB+ and falling fast. Larry Culp, the CEO, is desperately selling off core divisions of the company in an attempt to avert bankruptcy. 

Mission: Use appropriate columns of our Standard Spreadsheet to evaluate the leading bond ETFs, and compare those to the S&P 500 Index ETF (SPY) as well as a stock with an S&P Bond Rating of AA or better.

Execution: see Table

Bottom Line: To offset the risks in your stock portfolio (bankruptcy, market crashes and sensitivity to fluctuation of interest rates), you need a bond portfolio. Why? Because high quality bonds rise in value during stock market crashes and/or recessions, have much less credit risk, and usually less interest rate risk. Stock prices are more sensitive to short-term interest rates than any but the longest-dated bonds, e.g. 30-Yr US Treasury Bonds. Stock indexes like the S&P 500 Index (SPY) have average S&P Bond Ratings of BBB to BBB+, compared to AA+ for 30-Yr Treasuries. To cover those risks, you’ll need a bond fund that has low-medium interest rate risk and high credit quality. BND and IEF are examples (see Table). BIV differs only in having medium credit quality per Morningstar. TLT has high credit quality but also has high interest rate sensitivity. TLT can be compared to a stock with high credit quality and high interest rate sensitivity, e.g. Pfizer (PFE; see Table). The main thing to remember is that stock market crashes are invariably accompanied by a booming bond market (flight to safety). That’s a good thing because governments will have to take on a lot more debt to finance social programs like unemployment insurance.

Risk Rating: 1 for BND and IEF (where 10-Yr Treasuries = 1, S&P 500 Index = 5, gold = 10)

Full Disclosure: I own bond funds that approximate BIV and TLT.

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