Q: I am leaning toward buying individual bonds and creating a bond ladder instead of a bond fund for my retirement portfolio. What are the pros and cons?—Roy Johnson, Troy, N.Y.
A: If you’re worried about interest rates rising—and many people are—buying individual bonds instead of putting some of your retirement money into a bond fund has some definite advantages, says Ryan Wibberley, CEO of CIC Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There are also some drawbacks, which we'll get to in a moment.
First, some bond background. Rising interest rates are bad for fixed-income investments. That’s because when rates rise, the prices of bonds fall. That can cause short-term damage to bond funds. If rates spike and investors start pulling their money out of the fund, the manager may need to sell bonds at lower prices to raise cash. That would cause the net asset value of the fund to drop and erode returns.
By contrast, if you buy individual bonds and hold them to maturity, you won't see those daily price moves. And you’ll collect your interest payments and get the bond’s face value when it comes due (assuming no credit problems), even if rates go up. So you never lose your principal. “You are guaranteed to get your money back,” says Wibberley. But with individual bonds, you will need to figure out how to reinvest that money.
One solution is to create a laddered portfolio. With this strategy, you simply buy bonds of different maturities. As each one matures, you can reinvest in a bond with a similar maturity and capture the higher yield if interest rates are rising (or accept lower yield if rates fall). All in all, it's a sound option for retirees who seek steady income and want to protect their bond investments from higher rates.
The simplest and cheapest way to create a bond ladder is through government bonds. You can buy Treasury securities for free at TreasuryDirect.gov. You can also buy Treasuries through your bank or broker, but you'll likely be charged fees for the transaction.
Now for the downside of bond ladders: To get the diversification you need, you should hold a mix of not only Treasuries but corporate bonds, which can be more costly to buy as a retail investor. Generally you must purchase bonds in minimum denominations, often $1,000. So to make this strategy cost-effective, you should have a portfolio of $100,000 or more.
With corporates, however, you'll find higher yields than Treasuries offer. For safety, stick with corporate bonds that carry the highest ratings. And don't chase yields. "Bonds with very high yields are often a sign of trouble,” says Jay Sommariva, senior portfolio manager at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.
An easier option, and one that requires less cash, may be to build a bond ladder with exchange-traded bond funds. Two big ETF providers, Guggenheim and BlackRock’s iShares, now offer so-called defined-maturity or target-maturity ETFs that can be used to build a bond ladder using Treasury, corporate, high-yield or municipal bonds.
Of course, bond funds have advantages too. You don't need a big sum to invest. And a bond fund gives you professional management and instant diversification, since it holds hundreds of different securities that mature at different dates.
Funds also provide liquidity because you can redeem shares at any time. With individual bonds, you also can sell when you want, but if you do it before maturity, you may get not get back the full value of your original investment.
There’s no one-size-fits all strategy for bond investing in retirement. A low-cost bond fund is a good option for those who prefer to avoid the hassle of managing individual bonds and who may not have a large sum to invest. “But if you want a predictable income stream and protection from rising rates, a bond ladder is a more prudent choice,” Sommariva says.
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