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Bond Strategies In A Rising Interest Rate Environment

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So what’s the problem?

Bond investing for many has never been more difficult, but not for the reason many think.

Central bankers around the globe began aggressive campaigns of monetary interventions following the financial crisis in 2008. These unprecedented measures to stabilize capital markets and induce economic expansion in developed countries have had far reaching effects. We know that with Federal Reserve intervention interest rates have fallen precipitously while asset prices have surged higher. With interest rates now near historic lows the search for yield by investors has been a difficult task. However, it is in that quest for yield that many investors have unwittingly taken on excessive credit risk (the risk of the bond issuer defaulting) by pouring money into “high yield,” a marketing term for “junk bonds.” and emerging market debt. However, the real problem that continues to frustrate most fixed income investors isn’t credit risk but rather interest rate risk.

Investors have enjoyed a 30-year bull market in bonds, and deflation has been the reigning theory since the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

In our opinion the risk profile of traditional bond portfolios has changed. Today, traditional strategies benchmarked against the aggregate fixed income universe are dominated by interest rate risk –not the most desirable risk after decades of falling government bond rates.

When the Federal Reserve’s announcement of QE3, what Ben Bernanke said was interesting. Not that policy was being linked to a 6.5% unemployment rate, but that the Fed would tolerate an inflation rate up to 2.5%. So we have to ask ourselves, assuming the Fed does get what it wants, how can you explain that interest rates across the maturity spectrum up to the 10-year treasury will stay below that inflation expectation that the Fed wants to achieve?

While it’s difficult to predict when rates will rise, investors need to begin thinking about their fixed income strategies, and how their portfolios will provide income while helping to shield them from undesired risks.

It’s time for a new strategy.

BondStrategies

With the 10-year treasury currently at 2.6%, despite all the current angst, seems to be in a middle of the range of 2.3 – 2.8%…for now. Investors should begin asking themselves, how should I invest if yields go higher? Most investors think of investing in fixed income with the idea of what has worked for the last 30 years – be long bonds. It’s time for a new strategy.

Most bond funds in a rising interest rate environment are not the place to be. Also, a long duration bond portfolio is less than ideal as well.

For investors who think rates will rise, we can suggest several strategies. While we do not recommend any of these as pure strategies, as a compliment to a fixed income portfolio some of these strategies should be considered.

  1. An investor can focus on short duration bonds, five years or less, and weather the storm until rates move higher. Our firm tries to identify short-term, income generating taxable and tax-free bond opportunities that provide substantially higher short term yields to CD rates.
  2. A Bond Ladder is a very common way for investors to deal with interest rate risk. A laddered bond portfolio is a portfolio of fixed-income securities in which each security has a different maturity date. The purpose of purchasing several smaller bonds with different maturity dates rather than one large bond with a single maturity date is to minimize interest-rate risk and to increase liquidity. In a bond ladder, the bonds’ maturity dates are evenly spaced across several months or several years so that the bonds are maturing and the proceeds are being reinvested at regular intervals. The more liquidity an investor needs, the closer together his bond maturities should be.

    For example, if an investor had one $20,000 bond that matured in five years and earned 2.5% interest per year, the investor would not have access to that $20,000 for five years. Also, if interest rates increased to 3.5%, he would be stuck earning the lower, 2.5% rate until the bond matured.

    On the other hand, if the investor had five bonds worth $4,000 each that were laddered so that one bond matured each year, he only have to wait a few months to start earning a higher interest rate on a portion of his investment if interest rates increased.

    At the same time, if interest rates fell from 2.5% to 1.5%, the investor would not be faced with putting $20,000 into a lower-earning investment all at once. Interest rates might go back up by the time the other bonds reached their maturity dates.

    We would recommend laddering bonds as an essential risk management strategy within any balanced fixed income portfolio.

  3. As an alternative to the simple bond ladder, bond investors may want to consider Kicker bonds to compliment their portfolio. Kicker Bonds are premium bonds with above market coupons and short-term calls. In this scenario if rates move higher you have locked in a better income producing bond than had you purchased par bonds, and as rates increase, the likelihood of an early call decreases. If rates move lower, you have earned a higher short-term rate than had you purchased a straight bullet maturity.

    Before I get into the math, let me explain why the yield is higher and why the issuer (the seller of the bond) would be willing to pay a higher interest rate than the current market rate. First, the issuer is offering the higher yield because they want the opportunity to call the bond at an earlier date than the stated maturity of the bond. The reason that they might want to call the bond early is because rates may move lower, which means they could buy back these higher cost bonds and issue new ones at a lower rate, saving the issuer a lot of money in interest payments.

    To have the right to call the bonds, the issuer will have to offer a higher coupon. Because of the higher coupon, the bonds will be priced at a premium (above par). Premium bonds are harder to sell than bonds at par or bonds at a discount (below par), simply because most investors do not like the idea of paying a premium. Because of this, premium bonds will typically be priced so that there is a little extra yield (a cushion), to entice investors to buy the bonds.

    Kickers get their name because there is a “kick-up” in yield if and when a call date is passed and the bond is not called. Bonds are priced “yield to worst,” which means that, if there is a call date, the bond will be priced to the first call. This pricing method results in a lower yield for a callable bond than the bond’s yield to maturity—its yield percentage if the bond is not called and is held to maturity.

    Example: (Hypothetical) * The example below should not be considered a recommendation to purchase/sell Holly Frontier (HFC) or Kinder Morgan. The information is merely an example of how a “kick-up” structure works.

    • If in April of 2013, an investor purchased the debt of Holly Frontier (HFC) at $109 with a 6 7/8% coupon.
    • The bonds are callable any time after 11/14 (November 2014) and mature in 11/18.
    • In 11/14 these bonds are callable at $103.43. The yield to the 2014 call is 3.17%.
    • For some perspective, a like credit bullet (a straight maturity with no call) to 11/14 being sold at the same time had a yield of 1.3%. That is difference of over 185 basis points.
    • Also, the 2 year treasury at that time was .23% an 18 months CD is currently yielding .6%.
    • If rates move higher, and the bond is not called in 11/14, but is called later the yield run would be:

    November, 2015 – 3.85%

    November, 2016 – 4.15%

    November, 2017 – 4.70%

    November, 2018 – 5.00%

    Kicker bonds are a nice feature in either scenario. Kinder Morgan (KMI) bullet bonds to the November, 2018 maturity were trading on the same month at a 3.50% YTM (yield to maturity) as compare to the Holly Frontier bonds with a 5% YTM.

    Kicker bonds are reviewed by our firm to determine if they are appropriate for our client’s portfolios. Currently, it seems to make sense that these bonds could add a potential hedge against interest rate risk.

  4.  “Unconstrained” Bond Funds are essentially a catch-all label for a category of funds that defies easy categorization. Unconstrained bond funds are not tied to any fixed income sector. The idea is that through broad flexibility, skilled managers can add value through active sector allocation across the fixed income spectrum. Also, unconstrained strategies are considered “benchmark-agnostic”. Unconstrained funds have the ability to limit interest rate risk while adding alpha through diversification and access to a broad opportunity set. They can also eliminate interest rate risk by maintaining shorter durations than core bond funds – an advantage if rates start to rise.

    Our firm has owned unconstrained bond funds to compliment some of our clients fixed income portfolios, and we have experienced some good results. Just remember not all of these funds are the same, and should be reviewed carefully before purchase and reviewed consistently.

  5. A “Step-Up Bond” pays an initial coupon rate for the first period, and then a higher coupon rate for the following periods. A step-up bond is one in which subsequent future coupon payments are received at a higher, predetermined amount than previous or current periods.

    These bonds are known as step-ups because quite literally the coupon “steps up” from one period to another. Consider the following example. *The example below should not be considered a recommendation to purchase General Electric/GE Bonds. The information is merely an example of how a “Step- Bond” structure works.

    General Electric (GE) (A1/AA+ credit) offers a step up $100.74 with a semi annual call structure starting in 2014 and maturing in 2032. While these bonds do technically mature in 2032, Bloomberg has the duration on these bonds at 3years. Below is the step up structure.

    Coupon Step Structure

    • 02/03/2014 yield to first call 1.70%
    • 08/03/2014 YTC = 3.28%
    • 02/03/2015 YTC = 3.64%
    • 08/03/2015 YTC = 3.81%
    • 02/03/2016 YTC = 3.90%
    • 08/03/2016 YTC = 3.96%
    • 02/03/2017 YTC = 4.00% >>Important call date because this is the last time to call bonds before coupon steps to 5.25%
    • The volatility of the base index
    • The time remaining to maturity
    • The outstanding amount of such securities
    • The prevailing market interest rate, and;
    • The credit quality, or perceived financial status, of the issuer

    Call Schedule: CALLABLE ONLY SEMIANNUALLY

    Etc… to maturity

    In contrast, a straight bullet would yield only .36% to maturity in February, 2014 versus a 1.70% yield to maturity in a similar step-up. This would lead to an outperformance of over 130 basis points between the two bonds.

    Another important call date is in February, 2017 because, as stated above, it is the last time the bond can be called before coupon payments to the bondholder step up to 5.25%. GE bonds with a straight maturity to 2017 currently yield 1.5%. The YTC (yield to call) to February, 2017 in these GE step up bonds is 4%!

  6. Floating Rate Bonds are debt instruments with a variable interest rate. Also known as a “floater”. A floating rate note’s interest rate is typically defined as a certain number of basis points (or spread) over or under a benchmark such as the U.S. Treasury bill rate, LIBOR, the fed funds rate or prime rate. Floaters are typically offered by companies that are rated below investment grade, and they typically have a two-to five-year term to maturity. Over the 1992 -2011 period, floating rate bonds have the highest correlation with high yield bonds, which is consistent with floating rate bonds typically having higher credit risk.

    Compared to fixed-rate debt instruments, floaters protect investors against a rise in interest rates. Because interest rates have an inverse relationship with bond prices. In other words, a fixed-rate bond’s market price will drop if interest rates increase and vice versa.

    A floater’s interest rate can change as often, or as frequently, as the issuer chooses which could be from once a day to once a year. The “reset period” tells the investor how often the rate can adjust. The issuer may pay interest monthly, quarterly, semiannually or annually as they so choose.

    The secondary market for a floater is based on several factors that include:

    Each of these factors is dynamic, and can result in higher or lower secondary values. Some things to be aware of are that the market for floating rate bonds is small compared to the broad bond market, and not as liquid. Also, investors in floating rate bonds lack certainty as to the future income stream of their investment. While an owner of a fixed-rate bond can suffer if prevailing interest rates rise; floating rate notes pay higher yields.

    The flip side, of course, is that investors in floating rate securities will receive lower income if rates fall because their yield will adjust downward. If interest rates are expected to increase, floating rate bonds may be considered as a small part of a fixed income portfolio.

    Regarding credit risk, some investors step out of their comfort zone in search of higher coupons when rates drop and current income is dwindling. Be sure that you understand the additional risks you are contemplating and that your bond advisor has done his homework. There are plenty of good lower and non-rated bonds out there, but they are not for everyone.

    In recent years, we have been able to cull out bonds with strong creditworthiness after the bonds lost their previously high ratings based on bond insurance backing. Remember that quality must always be a primary part of an investors fixed income portfolio strategy.

    Perhaps it’s time to review the credit risk in your portfolio and diversify.

    The argument can be made that within the current economic, political and interest rate environment – fixed income investors need to rethink their strategy. What worked well for the last 30 years may not work as well going forward. A prudent investor may want to consider employing a few or all of these strategies as a part of their overall fixed income portfolio.

Luke Patterson

Principal

STA Wealth Management

 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the writer. The information herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but we do not guarantee its accuracy or completeness. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended or undertaken by Streettalk Advisors, LLC) dba STA Wealth Management (STA), or any non-investment related content, made reference to directly or indirectly in this article will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. Due to various factors, including changing market conditions and/or applicable laws, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this newsletter serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from STA. To the extent that a reader has any questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed above to his/her individual situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with the professional advisor of his/her choosing. STA is neither a law firm nor a certified public accounting firm and no portion of this article should be construed as legal or accounting advice. A copy of the STA current written disclosure statement discussing our advisory services and fees is available for review upon request.

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IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES

Financial Planning and Investment Advice offered through STA Wealth Management (STA), a registered investment advisor.

STA does not provide tax or legal advice and the information presented here is not specific to any individual’s personal circumstances. To the extent that this material concerns tax matters or legal issues, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances.

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