Last week I was invited on NetWorth Radio to discuss the municipal bond market (link to interview here). Afterwards, I thought of the dilemma most investors must be in when it comes to deciding on what asset classes they should hold in portfolios. This is an interesting topic of discussion and worth the time to visit at least two points of contention investors may run across.
Point of Contention #1: Can I use a traditional mix of 60% stocks/40% bonds to make money in this market?
The short answer is probably not. Why you can’t is an in-depth discussion but revolves around relatively slow global growth and divergent monetary policies (just Google “divergent monetary policy” to see what I’m talking about). Historically, investors could associate expected return with the amount of risk being assumed with an investment. The risk being assumed is referred to as a risk premium. The risk premium is the amount of return over the risk free rate you expect to be compensated. The risk-free rate has always been assumed to be positive, but in certain economies it is now negative. This does two things mainly: it lowers the amount of expected return of most asset classes since the risk free rate is now negative and it forces an investor into riskier asset classes to avoid negative returns. So, using traditional investment methods may not achieve investment goals. This may lead to the next obvious (or not so obvious) conclusion: Does this flight into riskier asset classes foreshadow the collapse of the market for risky asset classes? Possibly. What usually happens when everyone piles into a good idea…
Point of Contention #2: What are the implications of using a non-traditional asset mix to achieve my investment goals?
One implication, which is probably the hardest to hear, is that investors will need more financial capital. Investors should be prepared to work longer and delay retirement. This does two things to improve their situation: it produces more actual dollars to retire on, and it shortens the length of time in retirement. Traditionally, stocks have averaged between 7-10% annually (I’m using both high-tide and low-tide averages), but this has lately not been the case and will not be the case in the future. Consider that most pension plans are underfunded because of their utilization of traditional investment strategies to produce 8+% returns for future liability payments to plan participants. If pension plan managers have struggled to achieve returns for the millions and billions they invest, why would it be any different for individual investors? The answer is that it isn’t. That said, individual investors have the advantage of using non-traditional asset mixes to achieve their goals. Portfolio construction with non-traditional asset classes can be a refreshing drink of water to parched portfolios.
Point of Contention #3: Ok. You’ve got me thinking, what should I do?
Consider getting the perspective of an investment professional for your investment goals. I’m happy to say that day in and day out, I gladly assist investors in navigating what can be a very confusing and intimidating investment landscape. Consider that the Department of Labor just issued rules on how investment professionals should interact with investors’ retirement assets, so you may realize a change in how you receive investment advice. I won’t go into the rule in this writing, but the implications for the investor could be higher costs as firms adjust to comply with the rule. These firms will be those that have not been operating at the fiduciary standard all along. Natural to this process may be shifts in and out of asset classes (e.g. fund flows) that will affect future investment returns. With literally thousands of retirement plan participants and trillions of dollars at stake, investors should be prepared to hire an investment professional to help co-pilot what could be a bumpy ride.
Back in December, I wrote about the 5 Keys to Great Portfolio construction. I thought that based on the recent positive market performance, a lot of investors would start coming off the sidelines. As an asset manager and investment consultant, I am always asked questions about the timing of investment and my answer is that “time in the market is more important than market timing”. With that, I realize investors may be looking for where to put money. I believe the notion of portfolio construction is worth revisiting based on recent market movements. Here we go…
As seems to be the case every 7 years or so, bonds can become really cheap. I probably will receive a lot of flak on that statement depending on what kind of bonds are being bought. But as most pundits will even admit, the compensation for holding “junk bonds” has gotten as cheap as levels close to 2008-09. As has been disclaimed in previous writings, my expertise is found mostly in municipal finance, but the ideas I put forth are time-honored for nearly all credits—sovereign, corporate or municipal. So how do you choose which ones to buy?
If you want to play it safe you can always buy a bond fund which will invest in several bonds and fundholders receive the benefit of the aggregate cash flows and any capital gains after fees and expenses [for the fund are taken out]. Arguably the greatest benefit of mutual fund (bond or otherwise) investing is diversification. This takes the importance out of credit selection and places it onmanager selection. With longer and mostly positive track records garnering the most attention and money flow. However, what happens when everyone piles onto the best fund manager investment? The law of supply and demand takes over and the fund becomes expensive. As many times is the case, investors may be left with little yield after fund fees and expenses.
On the other hand, you could take a foray into building a bond portfolio of various maturities and payment schedules. The primary concern usually becomes liquidity (especially for smaller portfolios). That is to say when you want to buy or sell, could you find a willing partner? Unlike stocks, bonds are not “exchange-traded” and are primarily traded in an auction-like format. This is the foundation for my advice to any investor wanting to buy individual bonds: use a buy and hold strategy. The time and expense an individual investor would consume as opposed to an investment professional trading individual bonds becomes astronomical in comparison.
In either case you should be aware of the 3 C’s of credit selection:
- Cash flow and ability to pay. Not enough can be said about cash flow. Any enterprise worth investing in should be able to demonstrate cash levels appropriate for daily operations. In the hundreds of credits I’ve researched, this is my primary focus. Balance sheets and income statements are often idolized when in fact an enterprise’s cash flow statement ties the two together and presents the most accurate picture of true solvency. It is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say, becoming intimately knowledgeable of the inter-workings of financial statement interdependence is paramount.
- Covenant strength. When or if things go bad (i.e. missed interest payments, bankruptcy, etc.) bond holders are protected by bond covenants. Within the bond covenant lies the legal remedy for bond holders to pursue recourse for violations by the borrower. However, investors should be aware that the legalese found in most bond documents is byzantine and ironically enough written by bond counsel which represents the issuer of the bonds.
- Collateral. What backs the principal and interest payments? Real assets are usually pledged in this instance. First and exclusive right to gross revenue is also common. However, these pledges may often be divided among senior and junior debt holders, the latter having a lesser claim. When considering real estate as collateral I advise investors to look for recent appraisals for determining value as opposed to relying on book value.
Naturally, investment in either bond funds or individuals involve investors weighing the risk-reward trade off. But as always, with extra effort you can be handsomely rewarded with a gem of an investment opportunity.