interest rate risk

Choose Your Risks Wisely

© Can Stock Photo / alphaspirit

When you think about your finances over the course of a lifetime, it is easier to see that risks may only be selected, not avoided.

Our first understanding of risk often relates to fluctuations in value. If you put in a dollar, and the value soon drops to 80 cents or 60 cents, it seems like a clear (and vivid!) loss.

Money buried in a can would never have that kind of risk, yet its purchasing power—what you could buy with it—declines year by year if there is any inflation at all. This kind of damage reminds us of termites, which chew away behind the scenes, causing damage that is not obvious.

Longer term fixed income investments, like bonds, offer interest that may offset inflation in whole or in part. But the value of a bond may change with interest rates. A 3% bond is probably not going to be worth its face amount in a 6% world.

The interesting thing about all these different kinds of risks is that they cannot be entirely avoided, but they may be balanced against each other.

• The things that fluctuate in value may provide growth over the long term to offset inflation.
• Having money in hand when needed may enable us to live with fluctuating values in other parts of our holdings.
• Reliable income helps us avoid excess amounts of money laying around.

We think one of the most valuable lessons about risk is that, on our long term investments, volatility is not risk. If we aren’t retiring for many years, ups and downs in our retirement accounts may not be all that pertinent.

The stock market, measured by either the Dow Jones Average or the S&P 500 Index, has risen three years out of four. There is no guarantee that this general pattern continues, or how results will work out over future periods. But someone that invested ten, twenty or forty years ago may have seen a lot of growth overall, in spite of fluctuations ever year—and some years that were negative.

Clients, if you would like to talk about the balance of risks in your situation or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted.

Burning Up Money

© Can Stock Photo / ancientimages

No doubt you probably noticed the turmoil in the stock market over the past several weeks. You might have assumed, if you watched the stock indexes hit a low of more than 10% below their peak, that some particularly ugly piece of news had hit the market.

If so, you would probably be surprised to hear that the biggest news stories leading to the correction were that the economy was booming and unemployment was at record lows. So why were investors panicking at this seemingly positive news? The answer is inflation.

You see, as the economy grows, increasing wealth leads to increasing demand. This means higher prices–or, in economic terms, inflation. This creates a couple of problems for the stock market. In the long term, rising prices make it harder to maintain economic growth and may contribute to an eventual crash. In the short term, both economic growth and inflation increase the pressure on the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, making bonds and other interest-driven investments more attractive relative to stocks.

We are deeply skeptical of this short-term rationale. While bond investors may salivate at the prospect of higher interest rates in the future, we think this is short-sighted. Tomorrow’s higher interest bonds may sound attractive, but you would be foolish to buy them if the interest rate is going to be even higher the day after. On February 5th, when the stock market was posting headline-grabbing declines fueled by interest rate paranoia, investors were actually buying up bonds–bonds that stood to lose purchasing power as soon as better, higher interest bonds started being issued!

The longer term concern, that inflation may spell the beginning of the end of the current economic boom, is a bigger threat. We have warned for a long time that the Federal Reserve was likely to wind up overshooting the mark on its 2% inflation rate target. We think this is even more likely now that the government has passed a very stimulus-minded tax package. Cutting taxes during the middle of a boom is likely just throwing gasoline on the fire: it is possible we may see some explosive growth, so in the short run we are excited about the market, but in the long run the economy may just burn out that much faster.

Clients, many of you have been in business with us long enough to remember the roller-coaster years we saw around 2007. The dip at the start of February may potentially be forgotten as the market forges on ahead, but it will not be the last one. The roller coaster is coming back, and although we look forward to the ride we will keep a mindful eye for the day we may need to think about getting off. Call us if you have any questions about the market and the broader economic outlook.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Hidden Risk of Bonds

© Can Stock Photo / alexskopje

If I were to tell you that you could buy a bond that would pay out interest of 5% or more per year for the next 30 years, that might sound like a great deal. It’s certainly a great price in today’s interest rate environment—nearly double what 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds pay—and best of all, it lasts for 30 years. Other income may come and go, leaving you scrambling to find replacement investments that may or may not have the same yield, but this hypothetical bond will (one hopes) be around paying you the same rate for three decades. Sounds like a lead pipe cinch, right?

Wrong.

There is a catch. A 5% yield that will not go down for 30 years sounds great in today’s interest rate environment—but it is also guaranteed not to go up for the next 30 years. If interest rates rise and yields go up, your 5% bond will inevitably be left behind. If you try to hold onto your bond, your returns will look pretty pitiful compared to newer bonds that pay more interest and inflation will eat away at your purchasing power. If you try to sell your bond to hop on board higher yield issues, you’ll have to sell at a deep loss—no one will want to pay full price for your 5% bond if they can go out and buy 8% bonds instead. Either way, the damage would be considerable.

In investment terminology, this feature of bonds is known as interest-rate risk. The longer the bond maturity, the higher the risk (which is why longer term bonds pay higher interest.) Not only is it more likely that interest rates will rise at some point during the holding period, the damage will go on for longer before you get your money back at maturity.

We have many reasons to be nervous about holding on to long term bonds, even ones that have performed exceptionally well. For the past eight years, the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rate policy has been distorting the bond market, which is why overall bond performance looks so good in retrospect. But we believe that if it is impossible for something to continue, it won’t. Sooner or later the Fed will have to return to a sane interest rate policy, and when it does, long-term bonds are going to suffer badly.

We’ve been in this low interest bubble for so long we’ve forgotten what a realistic bond market looks like. If you find yourself scratching your head at the idea of selling off bonds that seem like a good bet, realize that what looks like a good deal now may not turn out to be so good in a few years. If you have any questions about your holdings, give us a call or email us to talk.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

The Medicine is Worse than the Disease

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / nebari

Monetary authorities took extreme measures during and after the financial crisis. These policies failed in their stated goal. More importantly, they have the potential for much mischief in the portfolios of the unwary in the months and years ahead.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made it clear that the role of zero interest rates and Quantitative Easing was to push money into productive investments (or “risk assets”) that would help the economy grow. Instead, the biggest tidal wave of money ever flooded into supposedly safe assets, like Treasury bonds. Money flows into US stocks disappeared in the crisis, and basically have never come back. Zero interest worked exactly opposite the way it was supposed to. This obvious reality is totally ignored by the central bankers.

Current Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen continues to parrot the party line. Progress toward undoing the mistaken crisis policies has been excruciatingly slow. And the potential for damage to safety-seeking investors continues to mount. Similar policies, or worse, are in effect around the world.

Standard & Poor’s recently issued a report stating that corporate debt would grow from a little over $50 trillion now to $75 trillion by 2021, globally. Bonds are the largest single form of corporate debt, which is how investors are affected. This isn’t happening because corporations are investing so much money in new plants and equipment and research. It is merely meeting the demand of safety-seeking investors for places to put money. We think of this as “the safety bubble.” It appears to be the biggest bubble in history.

Standard & Poor’s is warning of future defaults from companies that borrowed too much money at these artificially low interest rates. Our concern is that when interest rates inevitably rise, people locked into low interest investments will see large market value losses even if their bonds are ultimately repaid.

We’ve written about the impact of higher inflation on today’s supposedly safe investments. Now the warning from S&P highlights another risk. The distortions created by counter-productive monetary policy are growing.

Of course, we believe our portfolios are constructed to defend against these risks, and to profit from the artificially low interest rates. We will continue to monitor these and other developments. If you have questions or comments, please email or call us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Deflated Inflation Expectations

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / NataliyaShirokova

We’ve written before about inflation and its corrosive effect over time. The topic has become much more timely because of two developments:

1. The prospects for inflation have gone up with the large increase in the price of oil and other forms of energy. We could potentially see annual inflation indicators top 3% within the next six months.

2. Money continues to flood into long-term low rate fixed income, as safety-seekers buy bonds yielding in the 1 and 2 percent range.

It appears these trends are in for quite a collision. Our first principle is ‘Avoid stampedes in the markets.’ So we suspect that the safety-seekers may not end up with what they were seeking. If today’s 2% bond is repriced in a 3% world, capital losses may result.

Human tendency is to expect current conditions and trends to continue. So the prospects for inflation are pretty much ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ since we have not had much inflation for quite a while. But the large increases in the price of oil and other raw materials could potentially generate annual inflation rates in excess of 3% over the next few months. Crude oil, for example, bottomed at $28 per barrel in February 2016. Current prices in the $40’s, if they persist until February 2017, will exert a lot of upward pressure on inflation.1

One would expect that investors locked in at 2% yields when inflation is running at 3% will not sit still for it. The mystery is, will the stampede of money into bonds come stampeding back out if safety-seekers find losses on their supposedly safe investments?

The potential for profit lives in the gap between expectations and unfolding reality. We believe inflation expectations and corresponding investment yields are off the mark. We have no guarantees, but our opinion is inflation will be up and bond prices will be down in the months and years ahead. If you would like to talk about the ramifications on our portfolios or yours, write or call.

1Oil prices retrieved via Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Bond yields are subject to change. Certain call or special redemption features may exist which could impact yield.

The economic forecasts set forth may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

The Risk You Don’t See

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / larryhw

United States Treasury Bonds have long been considered among the safest investments in the world. But bonds with extended maturities, twenty or thirty years, have a lot of risk. This risk seems invisible and under-appreciated in today’s environment.

How would you like a twenty year long term Treasury bond paying 7%? Would that be good for you? People thought so in 1977. But by 1982 when interest rates had risen to almost 15%1, those bonds were only worth fifty cents on the dollar. Worse yet, inflation ramped up and damaged the purchasing power of interest earnings. When rates rise, the value of existing bonds goes down.

Since the financial crisis of 2007-2009, hundreds of billions of dollars have gone into bonds—a record tidal wave of money. One might guess this represents a flight to safety amid the uncertainties of the world. Some people got hurt in real estate, some were hurt by selling stocks after a crash, and they just want to keep their money safe.

Behavioral economics has shown that we humans tend to believe that current conditions and current trends will continue into the future. So if we pose the question, “What will a 2% bond be worth in a 5% world?,” most people can’t even conceive of the possibility of 5% interest rates. While everybody seems to understand that the stock market goes up and down, few seem to remember that the bond market also goes up and down.

As inflation begins to pick up, investors may be leery of owning 2% bonds that are going backward in purchasing power. If the sellers come out, bond values may decline while interest rates go up. The more selling, the greater the losses, which produces even more selling.

We are not predicting this will happen. But we do know a similar situation happened in the past. Fortunately, we are working on ways to preserve capital without facing the large risk from rising interest rates. If you would like to know more, please call or email us.

1Data from St. Louis Federal Reserve


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.