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6 Fixed-Income Options for a Low-Yield Environment

A reader writes in, asking:

“My wife and I are retired. I have approximately 50% of our savings in Vanguard’s Total Bond Market (TBM) fund. The remaining half is a mix of stock funds as well as a few individual stock holdings.

I am worried how that TBM fund will do going forward, especially over what we hope will be a long retirement.

The Federal Reserve says they’ll keep rates low until at least 2023 unless inflation gets above 2%. But 2% annual inflation still adds up over a few decades. And with US government debt exceeding 20 trillion dollars, inflation over 2% can’t be ruled out. What’s the solution here? Low yields abound, inflation risk still a problem, stocks as risky as ever. Is it time to try something other than TBM for fixed-income? Is it time to increase the equity percentage, even though we are conservative investors?”

There are several reasonable options here. And we’ll discuss them.

But the reality is that (with the exception of option #5, in some cases), none of the options are great. In a low-yield environment, there’s no way to get anything other than low expected returns without taking on significant risk. You basically have to accept that fact and conduct your personal financial planning accordingly. In most cases the best response to low expected returns is to change your expectations rather than change your portfolio.

Trying to find ways around this risk/return relationship is how you end up buying complicated/expensive insurance products you don’t understand or buying esoteric investments with risks you don’t understand. (That is, in a low-yield environment, if an investment appears to be offering you a decent expected return and low risks without any other significant downside, you are misunderstanding some aspect of the product in question. Either the expected return is not what you think it is, or the risks are not what you think they are.)

Option #1: Shop for CD Rates

As long as you stay under the FDIC coverage limit, CDs have no more credit risk than Treasury bonds, and they can provide higher yields, if you’re willing to shop around. For instance, as of this writing, 5-year Treasury bonds are yielding 0.26%, while you can find plenty of 5-year CDs with yields of 1.3%.

The primary downside in my opinion is that it’s somewhat of a hassle — not so much the shopping, but moving money from one financial institution to another. And, when each CD matures, if you’re not willing to shop around again and move the money if necessary (i.e., you simply roll the maturing CD into a new CD at the same bank), you’re going to be missing out on potential yield.

Option #2: Take on More Credit Risk

Another option is to take on more credit risk with the fixed-income part of your portfolio, for instance by switching from a “total bond” fund to an investment-grade corporate bond fund. As an example, as of this writing, Vanguard Intermediate-Term Investment-Grade Fund has a yield of 1.51%, as compared to a 1.18% yield from Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund.

But there’s no reason to think that this is a “free lunch.” Yes, it means higher expected returns, but with correspondingly higher risk — not necessarily very different from simply shifting your overall allocation slightly toward stocks.

Option #3: TIPS

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) offer a given after-inflation yield, as compared to most bonds which provide a given nominal (before-inflation) yield. If, like the reader above, you are concerned that an unexpected high level of inflation will consume most of your purchasing power over time, TIPS alleviate that risk.

Today though, TIPS yields are negative (e.g., -0.55% for 20-year TIPS). In other words, if you buy TIPS right now and hold to maturity, your purchasing power won’t keep up with inflation. But at least it won’t lag it by very much per year. (Point being: if inflation turns out to be very high, lagging inflation by just a little bit per year is actually a relatively decent outcome.)

Option #4: SPIAs

For a household concerned about outliving their money in retirement, a single premium immediate annuity (SPIA) is worth considering. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, it’s basically just a pension you purchase from an insurance company.

And because of the risk-pooling aspect of annuitization (i.e., the fact that the income ends when the annuitant dies, and therefore annuitants who live beyond their life expectancy essentially get to spend the money of annuitants who did not live to their life expectancy), they allow you to spend more per year than you could safely spend from a normal fixed-income portfolio.

An important downside of SPIAs is that they carry inflation risk. Because they pay a fixed nominal amount of income, the purchasing power will decline over time — and would decline dramatically in the event of very high inflation.

Some people make the case that buying a lifetime annuity (i.e., a fixed-income product with a very long duration) is not a good idea when interest rates are low. But as others (e.g., Wade Pfau, David Blanchett) have pointed out, the payout from lifetime annuities is actually most attractive relative to other fixed-income products when yields are low — because the portion of the annuity payment that comes from risk pooling (i.e., the “mortality credits”) is not affected by low interest rates.

Allan Roth recently performed an analysis that found that, when using himself as an example, a lifetime annuity actually provided a higher expected rate of return than AAA-rated corporate bonds. (And therefore a considerably higher expected return than a “total bond” fund that includes a substantial allocation to lower-yielding Treasury bonds.) And that’s while also reducing longevity risk, relative to a bond portfolio.

Option #5: Delaying Social Security

Another option for people in the applicable age range is to effectively sell some bonds to “buy more” Social Security (i.e., spend down fixed-income holdings in order to delay filing for Social Security).

This is the only option on this list that is an exception to the above discussion about risk and expected return. The expected return from delaying Social Security does not change based on current interest rates. So when rates are low, delaying Social Security becomes relatively better.

Option #6: Move Some Money to Equities

Finally, there’s always the option to increase your stock allocation. Stocks do tend to earn more than fixed-income. But as with shifting to riskier bond holdings, shifting from bonds to stocks is not a free lunch. And it tends not to really even increase the amount you can safely spend — at least not at the outset of retirement. (Rather, it provides more of an option for increasing spending later in retirement, if stocks do end up providing good returns over the first part of your retirement.)

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