Bond Bull Market May be Over- Time for Revised Strategies

Source: James O’Shaughnessy / WSJ
Graph Source: James O’Shaughnessy / WSJ

What were you doing in 1981? A mere twinkle in someone’s eye? Attending school? Working? Married? Elise and I were buying our fifth house and taking on a 15% mortgage. The rate seemed pretty decent to us. 20-year Treasury bonds were yielding 15%, businesses were paying 21% for a “prime” lending rate, and inflation was in double digits. Many people thought we were living in Jimmy Buffet’s “Banana Republic;” where inflation and interest rates would continue at record highs for decades to come.

This was not to be. We had reached a turning point in 1981, where apparent trends started to reverse. In fact, inflation and interest rates decreased steadily for the next thirty-one years. Inflation has averaged less than 1.5% over the last five years and 20-year Treasury bonds yields reached a low of 2.11% last year. Now, it appears that we have a new, permanent change of direction-rates are beginning to rise. The thirty year bond bull market seems to have ended.

Until this year, bonds have provided a great place for investors to put a good share of their money. Performance has been very good and the risk has been low. Total return, as Brett pointed out a few blogs ago, is equal to the yield (interest paid on the bond) plus the change in value of the investment. Because bond prices increase when interest rates decline, bond investors have been rewarded with both their interest income plus an increase in market value for last thirty years.

From 1/1/2000 to 12/31/12, 20-year treasury bonds produced a total return of 7.6% per year. The S&P 500 had a total return of 2.4% over the same period. It’s no surprise that investors fell in love with bonds, not only for the excellent return but also for the lower risk and volatility. However, the experience of the last three decades in bonds is unlikely to continue.

It’s a shame, particularly for older investors.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say that you own a bond paying 4% interest that matures in 5 years. If the interest rates for similar bonds decline by 0.50%,then the value of your bond is reduced by roughly 2.5% (0.50% decline x 5 years to maturity). Hence, your total return that year would be 4% interest income less 2.5% of price reduction. Hence, a net total return of 1.5%.

So, why would someone even own fixed income investments? The simple answer is that they still serve an important role in your portfolio. Fixed income has traditionally provided diversification and low volatility and should continue to do so. When equities rise, bonds won’t keep pace. But, when equities decline, fixed income historically advances. In addition, fixed income provides superior capital preservation qualities over other asset classes, including equities.

We believe in long-term investing and are known for not making “knee jerk” reactions. However, when there are major investment turning points, as we are seeing now, it is time to review portfolios with new proactive strategies in mind. This may include reduction of the allocation to fixed income, modifications within the fixed income asset class, and other techniques. Our DWM clients have seen a number of rebalancings focused on these matters in the last few months.

If you want to hear more, mark your calendars. DWM’s annual client educational update this year will focus on proactive strategies in a rising Interest rate environment. Our Charleston/Mt Pleasant event will take place October 23rd in the afternoon and our Palatine event will take place the afternoon of October 30th. We do recognize that the topic may, for some, be important but unexciting. That said, we can promise all attendees some pleasantries at the receptions that will follow. Be sure to watch for more details soon.