Boosting Returns in a Stagnant Economy

Article in Summary:

  • Many Savings accounts and CDs are paying less than 1% annual return.
  • Consider short or mid-term bonds for higher returns (but with more risk).
  • Investors are best served by investing in a combination of CDs, high quality short term bonds, and some high quality intermediate term bond funds

It is important for us to stay diversified and keep a prudent amount of our portfolio in fixed income investments – but where? We can avoid interest rate risk and default risk with CDs; however, we may sacrifice on return. Currently most short term CDs are paying less than one percent. We can get a slightly better return for a longer term CD but does this make sense in such a low interest rate environment? With CDs, the biggest downfall is the lost opportunity for a higher return.

If you want a higher return and you are willing to take some additional risk, consider short term bond funds. A short term bond fund that invests primarily in treasuries and government agency bonds has a very low default risk. However, there is some interest rate risk. Interest rate risk is due to the cause and effect relationship between bonds and interest rates. When interest rates rise, after the purchase of a bond or a bond fund, the value of the bond will decrease. For example, you purchase a $20,000, 10 year bond that pays 3% interest. A few years later interest rates go up to 5% and you decide to sell your bond that only pays you 3%. When you try to sell your bond you can’t get $20,000 for it because it pays 2% less than the market rate. However, several buyers may be willing to buy your bond for a discounted value to make up for the lower than market interest rate. If you hold your bond until maturity it should sell for the full purchase value of $20,000. The inverse is also true, if interest rates go down your bond will be worth more than what you paid. The degree to which this occurs is magnified by the term or duration of the bond. Short term bonds have less interest rate risk than do long term bonds.

Default risk is the risk that the company or entity issuing the bond will be unable to pay you back. In essence a bond is a loan made to a company or a government entity for a specified interest rate over an agreed upon period of time. US Government bonds and bonds backed by the US Government have an extremely low risk of default. Corporations, Municipalities, and other governmental entities have varying degrees of risk depending on their financial stability. Most bond issuers are assigned a rating to help investors assess the potential default risk of a bond.

A mutual fund has less default risk than an individual bond because you are buying an ownership share in several different bonds. However, you have less control over interest rate risk. If you own an individual bond you can hold it until maturity. If you own a mutual fund, the fund manager may be forced to sell bonds at an inopportune time due to a high rate of withdrawals. If the fund manager could hold all of the bonds to maturity there would not be an actual drop in value. However, bond funds must reflect a share price based on the current value of the bonds held in the portfolio.

If you want a higher return you may want to consider intermediate term bonds but be prepared for a corresponding increase in the level of interest rate risk. If you want to maximize return you could consider high yield or junk bonds. However, be very careful in this arena because high yield bonds are subject to both interest rate risk and default risk. In the current environment, interest rate risk and default risk are very high. Unless you are an expert in high yield bonds, this is a lot of risk to take on the portion of your portfolio that is designed to be less risky and serve as a buffer against the stock market.

Most of my clients are best served by investing in a combination of CDs, high quality short term bonds, and some high quality intermediate term bond funds. Unfortunately, there are few really good options in the current fixed income market.

About the author

Jane M. Young, CFP®, EA, MBA, CDFA

Jane M. Young is a Certified Financial Planner and co-owner of Pinnacle Financial Concepts, Inc. and Divorce Solutions, Inc. She has been a financial planner since 1996. She is also enrolled to practice before the Internal Revenue Service. Prior to becoming a financial planner Jane held several management positions at Digital Equipment Corporation and Quantum Corporation, where she worked for 14 years. Jane holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of Colorado and an MBA from the University of Colorado. She has also completed the two year Certified Financial Planner Professional Education Program with the College for Financial Planning.

Jane is very active in the community. She is the immediate past president of the Rotary Club of Colorado Springs and a past president of Leadership Pikes Peak. She is a graduate of the Leadership Pikes Peak class of 2004. She is a past president of the Financial Planning Association of Southern Colorado and a past president of the Pikes Peak Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Jane is also a member of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, College of Business, Alumni Leadership Team. Jane is a graduate of the Leadership Program of the Rockies class of 2009 and a graduate the Colorado Springs Leadership Institute class of 2011. She is also a member of the Estate Planning Council and Artemis. Jane was selected as a 2010 Woman of Influence by the Colorado Spring Business Journal.

As a fee-only financial planner Jane is a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Tax Professionals and the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors. She has been quoted in several local and national publications including The Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Consumer Reports, Investment News, MSN Money, Kiplinger Magazine, Financial Advisor Magazine, Bankrate.com and the Colorado Springs Business Journal. She also works as a volunteer instructor to new advisors with the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors and has worked as an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Jane is from St. Louis, but grew up in Colorado Springs. She enjoys skiing, golfing, traveling, hiking, painting and learning to speak French.

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