Advisor Forum on International Exposure and Diversification

A few weeks ago, four Merriman advisors got together for a round table conversation to review themes that came up during meetings with their clients. Aaron Spencer, Mark Metcalf, Paresh Kamdar and Tyler Bartlett all provided insights on the most common questions that investors are asking. Over the 40 minute conversation, you’ll hear their take on the following themes:

  • International exposure
  • Diversification
  • Bond rates being at an all-time low
  • Inflation
  • DFA and the value they add

Enjoy!

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Convertible bonds as an asset class?


Please share your view of convertible bonds as an asset class for folks entering retirement.


Convertible bonds are a unique asset class in that they have features of both stocks and bonds. They are often referred to as “hybrid” securities. This, along with their typically sub-par credit rating, is why they do not fit into our bond portfolio.

We prefer to keep the stock and bond components of our portfolios separate. Our bond portfolio is designed to buoy the allocation in times of stock market stress. The potential for convertible bonds to act like stocks does not jive with this logic. If convertibles – due to their hybrid nature – were showing stock-like tendencies when stocks were declining, your portfolio would have much less downside protection. As we have seen in the recent past, it is extremely important that investors maintain some level of protection in their portfolio. We do not believe convertible bonds are the solution. (more…)

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Adding bonds in preparation for retirement


At 61 years old, what is the best way to transition from an all stock portfolio to a 60% stock 40% bond portfolio?

 

This is a difficult question to answer without knowing your specific set of circumstances. To narrow the scope I will assume the following: 1) you will retire at 65, 2) you will take a 4% annual distribution from the portfolio upon retirement, and 3) you are using a globally-diversified portfolio like the one we outline in The Ultimate Buy-and-Hold Strategy.

Regarding the third assumption, it is extremely important to understand that different portfolios have different risk characteristics. A 60% stock 40% bond (60/40) portfolio allocated to the S&P 500 and high-yield junk bonds is entirely different and much riskier than the one discussed in the aforementioned article.

That said, I would make the switch immediately. With four years until retirement you cannot afford to subject the entirety of your portfolio to the risks associated with stocks.

For perspective, consider that the financial crisis cut the average stock portfolio value in half. Taking distributions from an all-stock portfolio during such a time period has disastrous consequences on the longevity of your assets. This is why, as investors near retirement (the distribution phase of a portfolio), they should – as you’ve indicated – consider adding a preservation component (bonds) to their portfolio.

If the goal is to achieve a 60/40 allocation by retirement, many people will initiate the transition process around the time they reach age 50. This longer time frame for transition allows the use of ordinary cash flows and rebalancing opportunities to make it a cost-effective and natural process. Your situation calls for a less subtle shift. Nonetheless, it is a shift in the right direction and, as mentioned above, I would proceed.

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How can I get hurt holding bonds?

I am considering buying bond funds and would welcome your recommendations. I recently read in Time magazine that you could get hurt if you’re invested in a bond fund. How can I get hurt holding bonds?


Many people think bonds are risk free, but that is not actually true. There are multiple risks associated with bonds, but they can be an extremely important component of a portfolio despite those risks. And, if properly allocated, they can provide a level of security above and beyond the equity markets. Of course there is no free lunch, and the added stability of bonds requires a tradeoff. Namely, you are foregoing the equity premium associated with stocks.

We recommend using a mix of high quality short- and intermediate-term government and Treasury issues. For tax-deferred accounts we include Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). This allocation is purposefully designed to be very conservative. Nonetheless, it is still subject to certain risks. Interest rate and inflation risk make the top of the list. You can alleviate the risk of inflation through the use of TIPS. Interest rate risk is somewhat of a different story.

There is an inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. As rates rise, bond prices fall and as rates fall, bond prices rise. Longer-term bonds are hit hardest in a rising rate environment; short-term issues are hurt the least. Of course shorter-term issues generally pay less interest. If you want an appreciable return – especially in today’s low rate environment – you need to extend beyond extremely short-term debt. Our solution is to limit risk exposure and also gain some additional yield by using high quality short- and intermediate-term US government and Treasury debt.

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Wall Street Journal: A Low-Cost Choice for Muni Income

Merriman Director of Research Larry Katz is quoted in this Wall Street Journal article on municipal bonds and how to use them in your portfolio.

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The ultimate buy-and-hold strategy

In this update to one of the most important items in our article library, Merriman shows how a series of simple but powerful concepts can benefit patient, thoughtful investors. This 2013 revision updates our hypothetical examples with data through 2012.

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MarketWatch: Why investors shouldn’t break with muni bonds

MarketWatch recently published an article providing some prudent perspective for those investors considering abandoning their muni bond investments. Read the full article here.

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Are dividend-paying stocks good bond substitutes?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

With bond yields so low, is it a good idea to substitute dividend-paying stocks for bonds? Some would say yes, since dividend-paying stocks yield more than some bonds, and have more upside potential.

However, I don’t think this is a good strategy.

Obviously, dividends are an important component of stocks’ total return. From 1930 through October 2010, for example, dividends provided 45% of the annualized percentage gain of the S&P 500. Dividends also help sustain portfolio income when interest rates are low.

But there’s no getting around the fact that stocks, including dividend-paying stocks, are generally more volatile than bonds. Substituting dividend-paying stocks for bonds will lead to a higher risk portfolio.

Let’s take an example of how volatile dividend-paying stocks could be. We’ll look at three exchange traded funds (ETFs). The first is SPY, which tracks the S&P 500. (more…)

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Interest rates and bond portfolios

As anyone who has recently refinanced a mortgage knows, interest rates are near historic lows. Low interest rates are good for borrowers, but not so good for lenders. This is important to remember because investors who buy and own bonds are lenders.

To help illuminate the risks and rewards of owning bonds, here are five key concepts that are worth keeping in mind. (more…)

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Inflation and our Merriman bond portfolio

Here’s an article we recently mailed to Merriman clients, addressing some inflation questions that we felt our FundAdvice readers may also be interested in:

Some investors are concerned about the prospect of future inflation, based on fiscal and monetary measures the U.S. government has taken to respond to the recent market crisis. However, other metrics suggest that moderate inflation will continue. These include current inflation, bond market indicators and worldwide excess capacity.

Merriman’s recommended bond portfolio is structured to provide a reasonable level of protection against inflation.

The Fed’s view

The Federal Reserve, in a statement on April 28th said, “With substantial resource slack continuing to restrain cost pressures and longer-term inflation expectations stable, inflation is likely to be subdued for some time.”

Notwithstanding this reassuring if somewhat abstruse statement, there is considerable debate about whether higher inflation will result from the fiscal and monetary actions the federal government used to curtail the market plunge from October 2007 to March 2009. Inflation is the nemesis of bond investors. An increase in inflation will cause an increase in interest rates and decrease the value of bonds. Conversely, if interest rates were to fall because of lower inflation, bond prices would rise.

What factors impact inflation and how is our bond portfolio structured to handle inflation risk? (more…)

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