Time to prepare for a bear market in bonds

With junk debt yielding below 5%, it's obvious investors are over-reaching for returns.

By TheStreet Staff May 10, 2013 1:21PM

thestreet logo Stock market Bear copyright Hemera Technologies, JupiterimagesBy Roger Nusbaum


The U.S. stock market has obviously been making new highs as bond yields have been making new lows.


The big catalyst behind these good times, it could be argued, has been the nonstop purchase of assets by the U.S. Federal Reserve and its zero-percent interest rate policy. All of this is having the effect of pushing investors into riskier assets to get a "normal" yield/total return.


This action by the Fed is unprecedented and is distorting market prices and fixed income yields. Barron's pointed out that for the first time ever, junk bond yields as measured by the iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF (HYG) went below 5%.


This past January was the first time junk bond yields went below 6%. For a little perspective, in the summer of 2006 two-year U.S. Treasurys could be bought with a 5% yield. That was certainly a different time but it speaks to the idea that investors are being squeezed to find yield.


Junk bond yields below 5% is an indication the bonds are expensive and the market is not properly pricing the risk taken by investing in this part of the market. The PowerShares Fundamental High Yield Bond Portfolio (PHB) might be even more expensive than HYG, the information page at the PowerShares Web site for this fund shows the trailing 12-month yield at just 4.77%. 

This circles back to proper diversification and not over-reaching for yield. A diversified bond portfolio includes some exposure to riskier bonds or bond funds but too much exposure to risky assets at the wrong time ultimately ends badly; tech stocks 13 years ago and bank stocks six years ago and riskier fixed income products will not be an exception.


Many will argue that although bonds are overpriced, they are not likely to go down soon because the Fed is continuing to buy assets and will likely keep rates at zero percent until at least 2015. The flaw in this argument is the assumption that everyone will know when the bull market in bonds is ending and will all be able to exit calmly.


Typical of bear markets, the end to the current bull market in bonds will come about in such a way as to not be reasonably forecasted by many people.


Instead of trying to predict the unpredictable, investors would be better served having smaller portfolio weightings to more bond market segments that don't all assume the same type of risk. Funds like HYG and PHB mentioned above take credit risk, which is risk that bonds in the funds will default.


A fund like the Pimco Australia Bond Index ETF (AUD), which owns sovereign debt, takes currency risk but not credit risk. A fund like the Guggenheim BulletShares 2020 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCK) takes interest rate risk, which is the risk that the prices of the bonds in the fund will go down when interest rates go up. 

All the funds have decent yields while taking different kinds of risks and, of course, there are more than three segments available from which to build a bond portfolio.


No one knows what a bond bear market will look like or what areas will be most affected. A strategy of combining different risk profiles will not guarantee success but gives a good chance of not having too much in market segment that gets hit the most.


At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.



More from TheStreet.com

May 10, 2013 3:57PM
Young people don't have as much to worry about over time  . People who are within 5 to 10 years of retirement are  the ones that have the most to risk .  A  20 to 30 percent drop in your 401k with a couple of years to go can make or break you . I am 44 and have been investing in mutual funds and 401k since age 18 . I hope to retire at age 50 . That has always been my goal . No one has a crystal ball to see the future . One thing is for sure is that if you don't invest you never retire .  
May 10, 2013 2:33PM
The 30 year bond bull run is coming to an end. Get out while you can!

And while you're at it, check if your 401k is rebalancing automatically between stocks and bonds. Might want to turn that off for at least a few years.
May 10, 2013 1:59PM

All these do-gooders sounding the alarm about the bottom falling out of the bond market.


Ha. Well, If they were so convinced about it they should be shorting bonds themselves. And then maybe start incessantly writing articles about how everybody needs to get out of bonds quick before the coming coll..



May 10, 2013 5:26PM
Like a person who gives money to a cocaine addict, Bernanke and the Federal Reserve buying U.S. Treasuries makes it easy for Congress to indulge their addiction to big government spending programs and big government debt.

Bernanke is also enabling the Too Big To Fail (or Jail) banks gambling addiction to the Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction, aka derivatives.

Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are enablers of destructive addictive personality disorders in our federal government and the big banks.

May 10, 2013 5:21PM
You don't need no stinking crystal ball to see the future of Bonds. Record Global Money Printing by countries that are burden with Record Debt. Doesn't take a Genius to figure out what will eventually happen because of that.

Young people have far more to worry about than Old Folks. The Older Generation will like get every nickel and Dime out of Social Security and Medicare, the young folks, not so much if any at all. The Older Generation lived in a era of far better Job Security and wage growth. Again, the young folks, not so much, if any security or wage growth at all.

Folks can invest in themselves instead just any given Markets. Better to depend on a income you determine as opposed to the Scam which has become Stocks and Bonds.

May 10, 2013 5:27PM
Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are punishing savers and rewarding the spendthrifts with low interest rate. This is called Financial Repression, and as we know, repression is practiced by oppressive governments.
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