Watching interest rates may be about as exciting as a snail race this year.
As the economy eases out of its doldrums, some upward rate movement by the Federal Reserve can be expected. But it will likely be a very modest move some months down the road during a relatively flat year for rates, say most experts.
The fixed-income investor is therefore left to handicap a rather unexciting field of choices.
Locking in long-term rates doesn’t make sense with prospects for higher future rates, while short-term rates are extremely low.
Investors are, however, increasingly deciding to put money in a safe investment backed by the full faith and trust of the U.S. government: Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, known as TIPS, that provide protection against inflation.
The principal of TIPS increases with inflation and decreases with deflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. When a TIPS matures, you are paid the adjusted or original principal, whichever is greater.
TIPS are issued in terms of five, 10 and 30 years with a minimum purchase of $100. They pay interest twice a year at a fixed rate and can be held until maturity or sold before maturity.
“One of the trends we’re definitely seeing is investors shifting some of their portfolios into the TIPS market,” said Michael Pond, interest rate strategist at Barclays Capital in New York. “TIPS yields are low but they add some safety to a portfolio by adding an inflation hedge at a very cheap price.”
Investors should look at TIPS as a structural shift in their portfolio for diversification, Pond believes. While no one will make a lot of money in TIPS the next three months, that’s not their role right now, he said.
“TIPS are attractive for the five- to 10-year horizon in which you’re concerned about conserving your buying power,” added Greg McBride, financial analyst with Bankrate.com (www.bankrate.com), North Palm Beach, Fla. “They’re free from default risk and the interest rate risk is minimized by the fact there’s an inflation adjustment.”
Demand was strong at the government’s recent sale of 10-year TIPS despite their low 1.430 percent yield. That auction was more than 2-1/2 times subscribed, with large institutional investors taking more than 40 percent of the new notes.
Not everyone’s completely sold on TIPS right now.
“TIPS are wonderful, wonderful, but I’m not buying them now because their yields are so low,” said Evelyn Zohlen, certified financial planner and president of Inspired Financial, Huntington Beach, Calif. “Instead, I’m buying two-year bonds as a placeholder as I wait for interest rates to come back up and then I will use the money to buy TIPS.”
TIPS can be purchased directly from the Treasury or through a broker. They’re also available in a number of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in a portfolio of different durations.
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX), holding TIPS with an average maturity of nine years, had a 12 percent total return for the past 12 months and a three-year annualized return of 7 percent. Total return represents yield plus value of underlying securities.
That “no-load” (no sales charge) fund’s goal is to provide inexpensive entry into the inflation-protected bond market. Its initial purchase requirement is $3,000 and it has an extremely low 0.20 percent annual expense ratio.
Meanwhile, the iShares Barclays TIPS Bond Fund (TIP) ETF, which is traded like a stock and therefore requires broker commissions when bought or sold, also had a 12 percent rise in net asset value the past 12 months and a 7 percent three-year annualized gain. It too has a low annual expense ratio of 0.20 percent.
With a fund, you needn’t keep track of maturities of individual TIPS and can automatically buy more shares with their earnings. You have annual taxable income with either funds or direct ownership, but if you own individual TIPS you face a tax bill on appreciation from the inflation adjustment, a noncash “phantom” event.
Most advisers consider TIPS for only a portion of a personal portfolio, primarily to hedge against inflation. TIPS also make most sense in tax-sheltered accounts.
Other current choices in fixed-income investments mostly represent biding your time for the future.
“If you lock in a five-year certificate of deposit at 3.5 percent, it won’t take much of a rebound in interest rates or inflation to be losing,” cautioned McBride, whose www.bankrate.com site lists free of charge the best bank savings account and money-market account rates. “You want to bide your time in short-term investments so that as interest rates rise you can lock into a longer-term CD.”
He warns against high-yield bonds because adding risk to find yield isn’t the right move now.
“We do think there will be better buying opportunities in bonds later this year, particularly for bonds longer out on the curve,” advised Pond. “Interest rates are historically low but we do expect them to head higher in 2010.”
Zohlen, who recommends only AAA or AA rated bonds for her clients, is convinced that this is no time to be taking on risks. To her way of thinking, avoiding long bonds of eight or nine years in duration altogether will be a smart decision this year.
Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, 555 N. Central Ave., Suite 302, Phoenix, Ariz. 85004-1248, or by e-mail at [email protected]