If You’re a Bond Investor, Beware of the Seesaw; SEC has a basic reminder for investors enticed by rising interest rates on bonds: When rates climb, prices fall.

July 20, 2013

If You’re a Bond Investor, Beware of the Seesaw



THE Securities and Exchange Commission issues frequent bulletins about what it calls “investment frauds and scams” — a frightening taxonomy of plots and stratagems aimed at separating investors from their money. The agency’s alerts range from warnings of Madoff-style Ponzi schemes to “pump and dump” operations intended to temporarily inflate a stock price. They also include cautionary notes about polite offers of assistance from predators posing as government regulators. Lately, though, the S.E.C. has been giving a warning of a different sort. Bearing the general title “Interest Rate Risk,” this latest bulletin is a cry for understanding. It’s about bonds, and for most people, the subject is confounding.The problem isn’t a new scam but a lack of knowledge about how bonds work, which can be dangerous in a time of rising interest rates. In its bulletin, the agency points out that investors need to understand that when rates rise, bond prices generally fall. This inverse relationship is a fact of life in the bond market. Like gravity in the physical world, it’s constant, powerful and important.

But outside trading floors, business schools, banks and brokerage firms, bond dynamics are fairly obscure, surveys find. That’s troubling in a time like this, said Lori Schock, director of the agency’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy. “We’re not predicting what’s going to happen to interest rates or when,” she said, “but we do know that rates can’t go much lower. And we know that they can go a lot higher.”

If interest rates do go higher, most people don’t understand how that will affect bonds. A 2012 financial literacy survey by the Finra Investor Education Foundation asked this question: “If interest rates rise, what will typically happen to bond prices?” Prices will fall, but only 28 percent of adult Americans in the survey answered correctly. Finra ran the same survey in 2009 and got the same results.

The Finra survey found that financial literacy levels were generally very low. On its Web site, it offers a five-question quiz, with questions drawn from the survey — none requiring computations, just an understanding of basic concepts. Only 14 percent get them all right, it says. (The average number of correct answers is between 2 and 3.)

As far as bonds go, Ms. Schock said, one way to visualize the relationship of interest rates and prices is to think of what she calls “a teeter-totter.” She’s from Indiana. In Queens, where I come from, we call it a seesaw. Whatever you call it in your playground, imagine interest rates sitting on one side of a plank and bond prices clinging to the other. When one side rises, the other falls.

That’s just the way seesaws work, and it may be enough explanation. But suppose you want to go a little deeper: Why do interest rates and bond prices move like this?

Here’s one way to understand it: When you buy a fixed-rate bond, you are making a loan. In return, you get your money back, plus interest. When market interest rates rise, the bond drops in value. That’s because, under current conditions, anyone making the same loan will expect more interest than you’ve gotten. If you want to trade the old bond for a new one, the old one will have less value. And when something sold in the marketplace has less value, its price usually falls.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course. If the bond’s interest rate isn’t fixed, and instead readjusts as market rates change, the seesaw analogy doesn’t hold. And the prices of different kinds of bonds shift differently. But the seesaw captures the basic idea.

It’s important right now because interest rates have risen since the spring, and, therefore, prices have fallen. If you don’t understand the relationship between prices and rates (often called yields) you could hurt yourself “by reaching for yield, buying bonds that you think are going to pay you more interest, only to see rates go up further, so the value of your bonds will fall,” Ms. Schock said.

Many people are in danger of getting hurt this way. “We’re concerned that many people might mistakenly think that there’s safety in investing in bonds,” she said, “when there’s actually a fairly good chance of running into trouble with interest rate risk now.”

EVEN Treasury bonds are affected by interest rate risk, although the federal government backs these bonds and will pay all the principal and interest if you hold them to maturity. Such high-quality bonds are safe in many ways, especially in comparison with other assets.

Bond prices are generally less volatile than stock prices, and a major bond market decline is likely to be much less severe than a major fall in the stock market. Bonds can provide steady income and — whether held individually or in a mutual fund — can play an important role in a diversified portfolio, buffering against stock fluctuations.

But when market rates rise, you’ll run into a pricing problem if you need to sell a bond — or if you hold Treasuries in a mutual fund, where they are priced daily. All things equal, your mutual fund will fall in value as yields rise.

Interest rates on Treasuries — and a range of other bonds — have already risen sharply, and a broad consensus of market analysts says they are likely to rise further in the years ahead. Historically, rates are still relatively low, largely in response to the policies of the Federal Reserve. The Fed has been buying $85 billion of bonds a month, but is considering an end to those purchases.

Bond yields gyrated last week in response to congressional testimony by Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, who said Fed action was “by no means on a preset course.” If the economy strengthens, he said, the Fed will ease its bond-buying. That could result in higher interest rates.

If you hold your bonds until maturity — or keep them as a buffer — you may tolerate such swings. But it’s better if you understand what’s going on. Remember the seesaw: When yields rise, prices fall.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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