Archive | Bonds

Is Your Bond Fund Really Losing Money?

When the yield on 10-year federal bonds spiked earlier this year—from 1.88% on May 16 all the way to 2.55% on July 5—the value of broad-based bond ETFs plummeted sharply. But I’ll wager that many investors think their bond ETFs are performing worse than they really are.

There’s a common misunderstanding about how fixed-income ETF returns are calculated. That’s understandable, because your brokerage’s account summary is highly misleading: it indicates only an ETF’s price change while ignoring all the cash distributions. And lately, 100% of your bond ETF’s return has come from interest payments, not price appreciation. Unless you understand that, you might think your ETF has lost money when it’s actually logged a nice gain.

Why bond ETFs fall in price

Most investors understand that bond prices fall when yields rise. What’s less well known is that bond ETF prices will decline steadily even if interest rates don’t change. That’s because virtually all the bonds in a broad-based ETF today were purchased at a premium—in other words, for more than face value. As these bonds mature or get sold, the fund will incur a steady trickle of small capital losses.

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Why Diversification is a Piece of Cake

After almost four years of false alarms, the bond bears are finally able to act smug. Broad-based Canadian bond index funds have fallen in price about 4% or so in since the beginning of May. Meanwhile, real-return bonds have taken it on the chin: they’ve plummeted about 13% and are headed for their worst calendar year since first being issued by the federal government in 1992.

In times like these investors question the whole idea of including these asset classes in a balanced portfolio. So it’s time for a reminder about how diversification is supposed to work.

It’s helpful to think about a portfolio like a cake recipe. You probably wouldn’t eat flour, baking powder or raw eggs on their own, but when you mix them with sugar, butter, vanilla and other ingredients the results are delicious. A baker doesn’t view ingredients in isolation: she considers how each interacts with the others to produce the final result.

In the same way, it’s important not to view individual asset classes in isolation. Real-return bonds are a perfect example. It would be hard to make a compelling argument for holding nothing but RRBs: their yields are low,

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What’s Happening to My Bond ETF?

If your portfolio includes a broad-based bond index fund, you’ve probably noticed its value has fallen significantly over the past several weeks. Judging from recent e-mails I’ve received, the reasons for this decline are not always clear, so let’s take a closer look.

Most investors understand that when interest rates rise, bond prices fall. But there are many different interest rates, and they all affect your bond fund in different ways. The shortest of short-term rates is the target for the overnight rate, which is set by the Bank of Canada to control monetary policy—in other words, to keep inflation low. This rate influences the prime rate banks use to price variable-rate mortgages and lines of credit, so it’s the one most widely discussed in the media.

The Bank of Canada has kept the target rate at 1% since September 2010: that’s more than 32 months, the longest period it has ever remained unchanged. Meanwhile, the prime rate has held firm at 3% during this same period. I’ve been asked by some investors why they’ve seen their bond holdings fall when “interest rates haven’t gone up.”

But as I’ve mentioned,

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Why Use a Strip Bond ETF?

Barry Gordon admits he was surprised when he first read Justin Bender’s entry in First Asset’s Search for Canada’s Next Top ETF contest, which I introduced in my previous post. “It runs against the grain of everything we thought we knew about strip bonds,” he says. But Gordon’s firm turned the idea into the First Asset DEX 1-5 Year Laddered Government Strip Bond Index ETF (BXF), which begins trading next Tuesday. Here’s an overview of this innovative new index fund, as well as an explanation of how it might be used in a portfolio.

Inside the ETF

First Asset tasked PC-Bond with creating the index for their new strip bond ETF. Here’s the basic methodology:

the ladder will have “term buckets” with bonds of approximately one, two, three, four and five years to maturity
each bucket will include five individual strip bonds: four provincial (mostly issued by Ontario and Quebec) and one federal (or federal agency)
the bonds will be selected with liquidity in mind: the issues must be at least $50 million and will be screened for maximum trading volume
the index will rebalance annually in June: bonds with less than one year to maturity will be sold and the proceeds used to purchase new bonds for the five-year bucket

No surprises so far.

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A New ETF of Strip Bonds

Back in February I asked readers to share their ideas for new ETFs that might fill gaps in the current marketplace. The idea for that blog post came from a contest run by First Asset, who invited advisors to submit their suggestions and promised to launch a new product based on the best idea.

I offered a couple of my own: an international equity ETF that doesn’t use currency hedging, and an international bond ETF. As it happens, iShares answered the first call in April with the launch of the MSCI EAFE IMI Index ETF (XEF), which I wrote about here. Vanguard listed an international bond fund in the US last week, though this isn’t suitable for Canadian investors who want to avoid currency risk with their fixed income.

Justin Bender strips for charity

The winning suggestion turned out to be more innovative than either of these ideas, and it came from none other than my colleague Justin Bender at PWL Capital. The new ETF, which will launch on June 11, is called the First Asset DEX 1-5 Year Laddered Government Strip Bond Index ETF (BXF).

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Bond Options for the Socially Responsible

Most discussions about socially responsible investing (SRI) seem to revolve around stocks. If you’re an index investor with an interest in SRI, there are a number of ETFs that screen companies according to their environmental, social and governance report cards. But what’s an SRI investor to do when it comes to fixed income?

You might argue that bondholders need to be even more discerning than stock buyers if they’re concerned about investing in irresponsible companies. After all, when you buy a company’s bond, you’re lending it your money (though you’re usually picking it up on the secondary market rather than infusing the company with new cash). And bondholders don’t even get a vote like shareholders do, so they can’t exercise any influence on management.

But there’s a problem for Couch Potatoes with a conscience: there simply are no bond index funds that screen issuers according to SRI principles. You’ll have to choose a different option:

Use government bonds only. Instead of using a broad-based bond index fund—which will include about  20% to 30% corporates—you might select one that includes only government bonds. BMO offers half a dozen ETF options (both federal and provincial,

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Understanding Floating-Rate Notes

By now every serious investor understands the consequences rising interest rates will have on bond portfolios. For more than four years we’ve been reminded that when rates go up, bond prices fall—and the longer a bond fund’s duration, the greater the losses will be.

The conventional wisdom is to keep your bond duration short if you expect rates to rise. The problem is, the iShares DEX Short Term Bond (XSB) has a yield to maturity of just 1.38% these days—once you deduct fees, that’s less than a savings account at an online bank. And unlike a savings account (which effectively has a duration of zero), short-term bonds will still lose value if rates move higher.

It should come as no surprise that the financial industry has come up with a product that tries to address this issue: it’s called the floating-rate note. A “floater” has a maturity date like a conventional bond, but its coupon is tied to a benchmark such as the Canadian Dealer Offered Rate (or CDOR, which is this country’s version of LIBOR). The coupon is adjusted every month or every quarter.

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Why GICs Beat Bond ETFs in Taxable Accounts

Last October, Justin Bender wrote a blog post explaining why GICs are more tax-efficient than bonds. The blog caught the attention of John Heinzl of The Globe and Mail, who wrote his own article on the topic a month later. Many investors are still surprised and confused by this idea, however, so I thought it was time to take another look.

It’s true that bonds and GICs are taxed in the same way. If you buy a newly issued bond with a face value of $1,000 and a coupon of 4%, you’ll receive $40 in interest each year, and this amount is fully taxable at your marginal rate. If you buy a $1,000 GIC yielding 4%, the situation would be identical. Nothing complicated so far.

However, in practice, things aren’t that simple. Interest rates have been trending down for years, and bonds issued when rates were higher now trade at a premium. Let’s use an example to explain this concept. Twelve months ago you bought a five-year bond with a face value of $1,000 and a coupon of 4%. Since then interest rates have fallen one percentage point.

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Ask the Spud: The Role of Real Return Bonds

Why has the iShares DEX Real Return Bond (XRB) dropped so dramatically this year? I thought this asset class was protective in times of rising interest rates (which are correlated with inflation), but perhaps I misunderstood. I also see the yield to maturity is almost zero. Please set me straight about the role of real return bonds in a portfolio. – K.T.

Let’s begin with a refresher on real return bonds, or RRBs. They have a lower coupon than traditional bonds, but their principal gets adjusted every six months according to the current rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

For example, let’s say an RRB has a face value of $1,000 and a coupon of 3% annually (1.5% semi-annually). This bond would initially pay you $15 in interest every six months. However, if inflation rises by 1% before the next interest payment is due, the RRB’s principal will be adjusted upwards to $1,010. Now the 1.5% semi-annual coupon applies to this larger amount, and your next interest payment would be $15.15.

The coupons on federal RRBs today range from 1.5% to 4.25%,

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