Monday, May 4, 2009

Sidestepping Risk: Bond Funds Offer More of Less

It is an act of faith to invest. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592), credited with the invention of the essay once suggested "How many things which served us yesterday as articles of faith, are fables for us today" would not be surprised by how investors are looking at their options. No more do investors believe that they can beat the market. No longer do they see risk as something will always play in their favor, rewarding them year over year with riches and gain simply by believing in forces many have no idea about. It seems that they no longer have faith.

We don't need to rehash old news about how far the market has fallen and even as it picks itself up, there are doubts that the once glorious years are well past us. Mutual fund outflows compared to the years prior see a steady rise, enable by the number of people who, for one reason or another think that selling at the bottom (or near bottom) is still far better than taking a long-term approach.

Wall Street and those that report on the happenings there see investor sentiment shift from stocks to bonds and like all good industries, they are moving with the crowd. This is the same crowd who shifted $25.7 billion in assets out of mutual funds in march even as the S&P 500 posted hefty gains. The were undeterred by the fact that there will eventually be a recovery, perhaps, as I mentioned in another post, in as little as four to five years. The folks making the shift have time to wait. But choose instead, to head for the doors.

On the flip side, bond funds gained. The Investment Company Institute, a mutual fund trade group that tracks these sorts of trends noted that the current bond market investment now totals almost $4 trillion, almost a 50% increase over the year earlier (a time when investors still had faith).

Some of that money is headed into target-dated funds, an unproven investment vehicle that promises to gradually shift an investor's money from stocks and bonds to bonds and stocks as they age and become closer to what the fund calls the target. That target, suggested by the fund's name and more importantly, the estimated tolerance of risk as they head toward retirement, has seen net inflows of over $10 billion in the first three months of the year.

This is in part due to the default option in 401(K) plans, where the employer, as directed by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, may invest on the employees behalf in such a fund. And once that happens, studies on investor habits have shown, the employee is not likely to change where their money is headed.

(It has been well-noted here that target-dated funds are an even bigger leap of faith than actively managed stock funds may be, an argument that suggests that these funds are often a mix of bedraggled and failing funds the fund family is keeping alive, albeit in a resuscitative form. Also problematic is the idea that these funds will perform as promised any better than if you had done it yourself, for lesser fees and only an annual revisiting and adjustment of holdings. And one last thing: will the fund manager at the helm be the same one five, ten, or twenty years down the road, perhaps the single biggest factor in the long-term success of the fund?)

There has been an interest in index funds as well. The argument against these in a retirement account is simple: taxes. These funds trade little and because of that lack of activity, their tax implications are very low. If you want to hold an index fund, do so outside of your retirement account where you can still take advantage of the low capital gains taxes. Adding to their attractiveness and your profits in the long=term is the low cost of owning an index fund, which, for the investor means more money in their pocket at the end of the line.

Driven by the need to protect what is invested, even the investment grows at a much slower pace, bind funds have become resurgent. For the younger investor, this type of investment is closer to stashing money under the mattress. For the older investor, it should part of, not the whole of their portfolio. But right now, lack of faith, a downturn in optimism, and the long range outlook focused on short-term results, will drive an increasing number of investors to give up potential gains in favor of not losing.


We have moved to this blog from our previous location on April 10th. You can find numerous additional articles along with notes from the book "Mutual Funds for the Utterly Confused" (McGraw-Hill, 2008) by clicking here.

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