In Berkshire Hathaway’s most recent annual shareholder letter, Warren Buffett shared his dire forecast for bond investors:
And bonds are not the place to be these days. Can you believe that the income recently available from a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond – the yield was 0.93% at yearend – had fallen 94% from the 15.8% yield available in September 1981? In certain large and important countries, such as Germany and Japan, investors earn a negative return on trillions of dollars of sovereign debt. Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future.
Thus far, Warren’s negative outlook has proven correct with the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond rising to 1.74% through the first quarter, leaving bond investors with a negative (3.4%) return.* And with inflation expectations heating up, it is certainly difficult to build a bullish case for bonds. However, most individual investors do not have all their investable assets in bonds. Buffett only considers the investment merits as a standalone investment. Given that most of our clients own bonds within a diversified mix of equities, real estate, and other asset classes, we thought this would be an opportune time to revisit the role bonds play within the portfolio.
In its most basic form, a bond is a loan to a government entity, corporation, or individual consumer. The investor in a bond is the lender and expects to receive back the original principal along with interest over the life of the loan. Bonds have two main characteristics: quality and maturity.
Quality is a measure of credit risk or the likelihood that the entity will repay the loan. High-quality bonds carry lower interest rates to reflect the low risk of default. In Buffett’s example above, he discusses the U.S. Treasury bond, which has the highest quality and thus a lower interest rate. On the other end of the spectrum, a corporation with a “junk” credit rating will have a much higher interest rate to compensate investors for the additional risk of default.
Maturity is a measure of interest rate risk. Using bond terms, duration provides an estimate of how sensitive a portfolio of bonds is to changes in interest rates. As an example, if interest rates rise across all maturities by 1%, a bond portfolio with a duration of 10 years can expect to lose 10% in value without including interest payments. The interest rate risk increases with duration and vice versa.
Now that we have the basics in place, let’s discuss more specifically the role bonds play in a diversified portfolio. MarketWise is designed to produce the highest risk-adjusted returns, taking into consideration the long-term expected returns, volatility, and correlations produced by the different asset classes. Bonds play a critical role in that mix. We invest in high-quality U.S. government bonds with short to intermediate (two to five year) maturities with the sole purpose of mitigating risk and providing stability. For taxable accounts, we invest in municipal bonds, which play a similar role while producing tax-free interest. We also own Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which provide protection during inflationary environments.
The main function of bonds in a portfolio is downside protection. If stocks always went up, there would be little need for bonds or any other asset class. But as we were recently reminded last March, stocks do go down, and when they do, bonds provide that counterbalance, as they typically rise in value during equity bear markets or economic recessions. In fact, since 1976, there have been eight years in which stocks were lower. In each of those years, bonds finished higher to help cushion the blow. This allows us to rebalance during those periods and sell bonds when they are up and buy stocks when they are down in value.
Bonds also have very low overall correlation to stocks. During negative months for stocks, that correlation drops even further. But that also does not mean bonds always have negative returns when stocks are up. In fact, bonds are slightly positively correlated to stocks during up periods. We recently saw this in 2020 with both stocks and bonds finishing with positive total returns for the year.
So, despite the lower expected returns for bonds going forward, it is important to understand the characteristics of bonds and why we own them. That said, our team continues to research ways to improve the fixed income slice of the portfolio. Over the past several years, we added two specialized asset classes in Alternative Lending and Reinsurance to increase returns that are uncorrelated to both equities and bonds. Going forward, we will continue to investigate ways to enhance the role that bonds play within the portfolio.
Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such. Any reference to an index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made. Indices are unmanaged vehicles that serve as market indicators and do not account for the deduction of management fees and/or transaction costs generally associated with investable products. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index is a broad-based flagship benchmark that measures the investment grade, US dollar-denominated, fixed-rate taxable bond market. All composite data and corresponding calculations are available upon request.