Tuesday, February 1, 2011

It's 2011: Do You Know Where Your Bond Mutual Fund Is?

Almost every investor in the country owns a bond. This ownership might be via bond mutual funds, investments in individual bonds be it corporate, government or municipal, or through the widely used target date funds. Each is prone to its own troubles.

Bond mutual funds, even though they are managed by expert managers, may be so burdened by the underlying investments as to hide or mask the trouble that may be brewing in this market.

Individual bonds are influenced by the health of a company, the ability of the government to retain its high credit rating or in the case of the municipality, pay off the debt it is owed to those who invested.

Target date funds, the darling of the auto-enrolled 401(k) participant may contain the most trouble in part because you don't have a good bead on what is owned and in many cases, in what proportion.

There are some essential elements of a bond that many simply do not grasp to its fullest. Not the least of which is the effect that interest rates have on these investments. In short, bonds are loans and the way these borrowers pay you back is with the agreed upon interest. Many bond issuers simply refinance those bonds to pay that interest. But what if the interest rate isn't favorable to such financial restructuring?

So let's talk interest rates for a moment and some of the assumed beliefs you may have.

The trickle up effect
We often put a good deal of the emphasis on the Federal Reserve bank and their presumed control over all interest rates. They lend to the largest banks in what is called an overnight rate. Banks increase that rate to consumers at each level of lending, the last rung being the consumer loan for a mortgage or a personal loan.

Those rates are determined by demand, the market forces at play and in many instances, inflation and/or governmental budgetary needs (deficits). The Fed looks at money supply, the other half of the demand equation and depending on how much is circulating - too much and the interest rates remain low, too little and they increase. Sometimes.

Sometimes fear increases those rates as well. Growth forecasts and a strengthening economy normally lead to more demand for capital which leads to higher interest rates. Add to that the increasing possibility that inflation will rise as well. gives everyone who borrows the jitters. They know, should these things happen, the Fed will raise interest rates in the name of stabilizing the economy.

The emerging market conundrum
The world is global - while an oxymoron as a stand alone phrase, it represents a growth not previously seen in the decades prior to this one. Emerging economies are building at a pace that is much faster than anyone anticipated. Much of this growth is coming from China but there are numerous other economies doing the same thing on a slightly smaller scale.

The flip side of that growth is investment and investment needs money and countries, faced with growing populations who no longer worry about saving, instead shifting to spending, force borrowing. This will increase interest rates - probably sooner than we expect. many of us have experienced low interest rates for so long, we consider it to be the norm.

Consumers: should you save or should you spend?
The most common answer is to spend. Popular economic theory is that if consumers fail to spend, the economy will languish. This is actually not the whole truth. If interest rates are low, it would pay for infrastructure improvements much more cheaply than otherwise - and these improvements are necessary if corporations expect to become more efficient in their production of goods and services.
The bottom line, a healthy savings rate actually adds to the improvements that need to be made. It doesn't suggest that folks won't spend. But it does prompt companies - at least in theory to do a better job enticing you to do so.

Is mortgage deductibility important?
Possibly but the impact is lower and more specific than many suggest. Lower interest rates on home loans entice borrowers to buy more house than they need, refinance to increase their debt and those actions pour more money into the economy. Yet at the same time, estimates of lost revenue to the federal government have been estimated to be as high as $104 billion a year.

Raise those interest rates
No doubt, we expect interest rates to remain low. But they should be inching up. According toRichard Dobbs, director in McKinsey’s Seoul office and a director of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and Susan Lund is director of research at MGI, higher interest rates would "also limit financial bubbles, restraining speculative and heavily leveraged investment while encouraging more investment that would actually raise the economy’s potential growth rate, such as expanding the country’s broadband network, developing new green technologies, and rebuilding aging infrastructure."

The authors of that report also suggest, a rightly so, that "higher rates would also focus executives’ attention on the return that companies earn on their capital, prodding them to make sure they get more bang for each buck. This could boost the nation’s productivity, which is the key to raising standards of living over time."

Does this point to a bond bubble?

Not necessarily so. What it does however is seduce investors into thinking that all is well and bonds do not come with risks. Gus Sauter, chief investment officer of The Vanguard Group, the largest U.S. bond mutual fund manager with $413.6 billion of fixed income assets as of Dec. 31 wrote that he is "increasingly worried that people aren’t aware of the risks in the bond market. The problem is that when you’re at historically low rates, as we are now … yields aren’t likely to go significantly lower, and at some point when the economy does strengthen, they’re likely to push higher.”

This does suggest that bond investors are overbought, denying the risks involved and ignoring the potential, even probable readjustment in this corner of the market. Will it burst as a bubble might? Not likely but the slow hiss will take the least experienced investors by surprise and it may be too late by the time it happens for them to do much of anything.

With one exception, possibly two. Increase your equity exposure is one. The other, buy short maturities. This last one might make it difficult for individual bond holders to ladder their portfolios. But at least you won't be stuck with bonds that are worth less in an inflationary period.

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