Q: With interest rates starting to rise, what's the best way to invest for income?
A: Rates are indeed starting to climb, now that the economy is accelerating and inflation is ticking up. Since last summer, the yield on 10-year Treasury securities jumped by more than a full percentage point, from 1.37% in July to more than 2.4% today.
For fixed income investors, rising interest rates pose a big challenge, since older, lower-yielding bonds held in a fund are likely to fall in price when market rates rise. That explains why, over the past three months, the average long-term government bond fund has lost nearly 8% of its value, according to Morningstar.
But “there is a benefit to rising rates,” says Matt Toms, chief investment officer for fixed income at Voya Investment Management. “If you’re patient and are reinvesting the income, over time you are going to be better off with the higher income payout.”
Plus, there are small steps you can take with new money to position your bond portfolio for the new rising-rate environment.
Shorten up. Focus on funds that invest in short-term debt—bonds maturing in two to three years or less. For starters, short-term bonds tend to lose less than longer-dated securities when rates rise. Moreover, “we can look at corporate balance sheets and have confidence of their cash flow over one, two, or three years,” says Warren Pierson, senior portfolio manager with Baird. “That’s harder to do when you are investing in bonds with 10-, 15-, and 20-year maturities,” he says.
If you're looking for a solid short-term bond, consider Vanguard Short-Term Investment Grade (VFSTX), a low-cost option that's in our Money 50 recommended list of mutual and exchange-traded funds.
Go with the float. Floating-rate bank loans are another form of short-term debt — with a couple of big differences. When rates lift, yields on many of these securities float with the market. As a result, as rates have risen over the past three months, the average bank loan fund has gained more than 2% in total returns.
Floating-rate securities are also generally issued by companies with less-than-pristine balance sheets. So only own these funds in moderation. And use them as an alternative to high-yield "junk" bond funds.
Be careful with income stocks. For years, investors frustrated by historically low rates have turned to dividend-paying stocks to boost their income. But investors need to be really careful with income-producing stocks, as they are sensitive to interest rate changes. That's because when market yields rise, bond investors who turned to dividend paying equities are likely to pivot back to the fixed-income market. “You want to stay away from interest-rate-sensitive stocks,” says Burt White, chief investment officer at LPL Financial.
And finally, don't go overboard. While short-term bond funds make a lot of sense, don't upend your entire strategy. In fact, there's a strong argument for sticking with your so-called core bond funds even if they include longer-dated debt. “A core bond fund can still play a very constructive role in a diversified portfolio,” says Toms. “Those bonds do a good job of offsetting equity volatility.”