Ways To Protect Your Bond Portfolio From Rising Interest Rates

This is bad news for bond investors, since bonds lose value as interest rates rise. The reason stems from the fact coupon rates for most bonds are fixed when the bonds are issued. So, as rates rise and new bonds with higher coupon rates become available, investors are willing to pay less for existing bonds with lower coupon rates.

So what can you do to protect your fixed-income investments as rates rise? Well, here are five ideas to help you, and your portfolio, weather the storm.

1. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS)

First issued by the U.S. Treasury in 1997, TIPS are bonds with a portion of their value pegged to the inflation rate. As a result, if inflation rises, so will the value of your TIPS. Since interest rates rarely move higher unless accompanied by rising inflation, TIPS can be a good hedge against higher rates. Because the Federal government issues TIPS, they carry no default risk and are easy to purchase, either through a broker or directly from the government at http://www.treasurydirect.gov.

TIPS are not for everyone, though. First, while inflation and interest rates often move in tandem, their correlation is not perfect. As a result, it is possible rates could rise even without inflation moving higher. Second, TIPS generally yield less than traditional Treasuries. For example, the 10-year Treasury note recently yielded 4.75 percent, while the corresponding 10-year TIPS yielded just 2.0 percent. And finally, because the principal of TIPS increases with inflation, not the coupon payments, you do not get any benefit from the inflation component of these bonds until they mature.

If you decide TIPS makes sense for you, try to hold them in a tax-sheltered account like a 401(k) or IRA. While TIPS are not subject to state or local taxes, you are required to pay annual federal taxes not only on the interest payments you receive, but also on the inflation-based principal gain, even though you receive no benefit from this gain until your bonds mature.

2. Floating rate loan funds

Floating rate loan funds are mutual funds that invest in adjustable-rate commercial loans. These are a bit like adjustable-rate mortgages, but the loans are issued to large corporations in need of short-term financing. They are unique in that the yields on these loans, also called “senior secured” or “bank” loans, adjust periodically to mirror changes in market interest rates. As rates rise, so do the coupon payments on these loans. This helps bond investors in two ways: (1) it provides them more income as rates rise, and (2) it keeps the principal value of these loans stable, so they don’t suffer the same deterioration that afflicts most bond investments when rates increase.

Investors need to be careful, though. Most floating rate loans are made to below-investment-grade companies. While there are provisions in these loans to help ease the pain in case of a default, investors should still look for funds that have a broadly diversified portfolio and a good track record for avoiding troubled companies.

3. Short-term bond funds

Another option for bond investors is to shift their holdings from intermediate and long-term bond funds into short-term bond funds (those with average maturities between 1 and 3 years). While prices of short-term bond funds do fall when interest rates rise, they do not fall as fast or as far as their longer-term cousins. And historically, the decline in value of these short-term bond funds is more than offset by their yields, which gradually increase as rates climb.

4. Money-market funds

If capital preservation is your concern, money market funds are for you. A money-market fund is a special type of mutual fund that invests only in very short-term money market instruments. Since these instruments usually mature within 60 days, they are not affected by changes in market interest rates. As a result, funds that invest in them are able to maintain a stable net asset value, usually $1.00 per share, even when interest rates climb.

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