With the Federal Reserve starting in earnest to raise interest rates, it’s all the rage to worry about bonds. Why all the hand-wringing? It boils down to a tendency to over simplify the math.
To start, bond investors expect two things; getting their money back at some known point in the future and receiving interest income while they twiddle their thumbs.
Investors are imprinted at birth with the notion that rising interest rates are bad news for bonds, and vice versa. Like a teeter-totter; on one end sits bond prices, and on the other end sit interest rates. When rates rise, bonds fall in value. When rates fall, bond prices rise.
Of course, this basic math of bonds isn’t all there is to know. Let me necessarily complicate the matter.
The first thing to know is that maturity matters. I’m talking about the length of time a bond investor agrees to wait to get their money back. The shorter they agree to wait, the less worried they should be about rising interest rates.
The closer to maturity, the smaller the ups-and-downs they’ll feel. Think of it as “scooching” closer to the center of that teeter-totter. In fact, if you scooch in really close, the ride can get awfully boring, no matter how many headlines Janet Yellen and the Fed are making.
The second thing to know is interest rates come in many flavors. There are interest rates for bond investors who don’t want to wait long for their money. And, there are interest rates for the very patient bond investor. And, of course, there’s a full spectrum of rates in between. This spectrum is known as the “yield-curve.”
It’s the changing shape of the yield curve that really matters. The short, middle and the long-end of the yield-curve might behave very differently. As a bond investor, there are lots of teeter-totters on the playground to hop on. Some are slow and some are fast. Some produce a wild ride. Others are boring.
The third thing to know is not all bonds carry the same risks. You might choose to lend to a sure-bet borrower or to a dead-beat debtor. The sure-bet naturally pays less interest and the dead-beat pays more.
To bond investors, everything is a game of comparison. The difference in the interest you’ll earn by lending to the highest quality borrower – the US Treasury with its power to tax and to print money – and to the mere mortal borrowers, are known as the “credit spread.” Credit spreads pay you for taking a risk.
The level of credit spreads changes with the ebb-and-flow of investor confidence. On one hand, “wide” credit spreads can protect investors like an airbag when the teeter-totter hurls you downward. On the other hand, “tight” credit spreads can lead to a sore rear-end or worse.
Yes, it’s true the Fed appears hell-bent on raising short-term interest rates. But, clearly there’s more to know than just that fact alone. Your choice of maturity, your assessment of the shape of the yield-curve and your focus on the level of credit spreads will all play a factor in how your bond portfolio will perform. Be sure to pick your teeter-totter wisely.