Less exposure, same return
For long-term investors with a dedicated portion of their portfolio in bonds, Rocky believes that there’s currently an opportunity to reduce exposure — without reducing return.
The “trick” is to extend maturities with a portion of their bonds, and to put the balance of their exposure in cash. This is called a bar-bell trade (named after the exercise equipment) — and the steepest yield curve in 30 years (see chart) provides a rare opportunity to do this trade.
Here’s an example of the mechanics.
An investor has $100,000 in the Vanguard Intermediate Term Investment Grade Bond Fund. This fund yields 3.1% and has an average duration of 5.3 years.
If the investor sells that fund, and buys $58,000 of the Vanguard Long Term Investment Grade Bond Fund which yields 5.4% with a duration of 12.9 years and puts the other $42,000 in FDIC insured money market funds yielding 1.0%, a number of virtuous things can happen:
1) If nothing happens, the cash yield of his portfolio has increased by a little bit. Before the re-allocation, his portfolio was producing $3100 in income, and now it’s producing $3500 in income.
2) The investor has increased his cash balance, and since no one really knows what the future will hold, it’s always good to have lots of cash. If interest rates rise , the investor will be able to put the cash to work at higher yields.
3) If interest rates rise, the yield curve is likely to flatten (based both on history and standard economic theory). That is, short-term rates ”should” rise more than long-term interest rates. So, even though the re-allocation results in a longer duration (7.48 versus 5.3), in most scenarios this risk is overstated. Also, the risk is lessened due to the 42% cash cushion. So the practical increase in duration should be less than the theoretical increase.
4) The investor has sold the portion of the bond market that is being levitated by the Federal Reserve and purchased a portion of the bond market which is being set by market forces. (Most of the Fed’s purchases are under 7 years in maturity.) So, when the Fed stops buying or reverses its purchases, the re-allocation should have less market risk in the short maturities that usually rise the most during tightening cycles.
5) With short rates at zero, there’s nowhere for rates to go except up. However, if the USA is in a Japanese-style depression, the only yields that can still decline are the ultra-long maturities, and one might experience a “bull market flattener”. (This is a low probability event.) Due to its modestly increased duration and position on the yield curve, the re-allocation would likely outperform nicely during a bull market flattener. Additionally, the stock market will be weak in this scenario, and the 48% cash balance might be useful for purchasing some stocks at much lower prices.
Where does this strategy look worse? If all interest rates across the yield curve move higher by the same amount , then the modestly increased duration can cause an underperformance, and if the yield curve steepens even more, there can be an underperformance. Remember: Rocky isn’t suggesting to just move out the yield curve with the same amount of money… It’s important to tuck about 48% of the portfolio away in safe money market funds . Remember also that when rates rise, bond prices decline. So if interest rates rise a lot, all bond investors will lose money. The underlying theme to this re-allocation is “less exposure — same return.”
[Disclosure: This is NOT investment advice...see the Disclaimer at the top of this page! It's just something that Rocky noticed and investors should think about. It's also an observation that the yield curve is steepest its been in 30+ years. If the 30-year bond keeps rising in yield -- and the Fed keeps rates at 0%, then this strategy will not be attractive. There's no reason to think that today marks the maximum steepness. Lastly, Rocky doesn't have an opinion about when rates will rise; but they eventually will. But as Keynes supposedly said, "In the long run, we're all dead." ]