Bonds are behaving badly. This year, the bond market has lost about 2.5%, after factoring in interest payments received and the downward shift in market value. For most investors, a loss is unusual in this typically steady part of their portfolio. Why is this happening?
To begin, visualize a teeter-totter. Like a teeter-totter, when interest rates drop, bond prices rise. This downward movement in interest rates has been the general trend since way back in Ronald Reagan’s first term. But, like a teeter-totter, it also works in reverse. When rates rise, bond prices fall.
Lately, interest rates are rising. I’m not talking short-term rates, though. Those are controlled by the Federal Reserve. Like a steady drumbeat, the Fed has raised rates three times this year, just as they did last year. But, short term rates really don’t directly affect bond prices much. I’m talking about long term rates. That’s where today’s losses in bonds come into play.
At the start of the year, the 10-year US Treasury rate was just under 2.5%. Today, this closely-watched “benchmark” rate is almost 3.2%. This has caused the teeter-totter to swing; rates up, prices down. An upward shift of almost 1% in long term rates is quite big. For those who are familiar with teeter-totters, it’s never fun when your partner jumps off!
With longer-term interest rates having reached a decades-long low not too long ago, the fear of rising rates has been palpable. Yet, it has largely been all bark and no bite. Lately, that fear has been validated.
With this, there are two burning questions. Why have rates risen? And, what should we expect now?
The typical explanation of why long-term rates rise is inflation. This makes sense. After all, when you lend money, you’d like to first keep up with inflation and also make some “real” money to boot.
When you look at investors’ inflation expectations, though, not a lot has changed since the start of the year. Future inflation expectations have held steady at around 2%. No, interest rates have risen because bond investors now demand more of a “real” return on their money. This often happens when the economy looks strong.
If the economy keeps wind in its sails, it’s not inconceivable to expect longer term rates to keep rising, perhaps up another 0.5% or so. If that happens, bonds face some more headwinds. However, I believe the bulk of the pain in bonds is likely over.
If, on the other hand, the economy’s sugar high from the recent tax cuts and deficit spending wears off, the teeter-totter just might swing back in bond investors’ favor again.
With the balance of risk about even, in my view, my generalized advice is to shift your bond portfolio into some shorter-term bonds. This analogous to scooting your bum a little closer to the center of that teeter-totter. If your partner keeps jumping off, the swings won’t be quite as jarring!
Jason P. Tank, CFA is the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a fee-only wealth advisory firm located in Traverse City. Comments welcomed by phone at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com or online at www.FrontStreet.com