During the past decade, the returns of investment-grade bonds have exceeded those of stocks.
It is helpful to weigh both the benefits and risks associated with bonds and other investments.
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Interest rates, inflation, and federal spending are likely to impact future bond returns.
During the past decade, many long-term fundamentals of investing have been turned upside down and one example is the performance of U.S. stocks compared with bonds. Over longer time periods, such as 20 or 30 years, stocks exhibited higher average annual returns along with greater volatility.1 Bonds, in contrast, presented lower long-term returns along with fewer ups and downs.
But the 10-year period ending December 31, 2011, has shown the opposite, with the average annual return of investment-grade bonds exceeding stocks by a margin of 5.8% compared with 2.9%.1 No one knows for sure whether the recent outperformance of bonds will continue, but events currently present in the U.S. economy are causing observers to question the outlook in the years ahead.
Interest Rates The Federal Reserve has maintained the federal funds rate between 0.0% and 0.25% with the goal of stimulating the economy. Given how low short-term interest rates are, it is likely that they will turn upward at some point, which would present challenges for bondholders. Historically, higher interest rates have caused the prices of existing bonds to fall as investors have pursued newly issued bonds paying higher rates. This scenario presents the potential for losses for existing bondholders.
Inflation During 2011, inflation averaged 3.2%, close to the historical average of 2.9%.2 But if inflation were to increase even higher, an investor would lose money on a bond with a yield lower than the rate of inflation. Some observers believe that if the U.S. economy begins generating stronger growth, inflation could once again spike upward.
Federal Spending Sizeable federal deficits are almost old news as the government looks for ways to stimulate the country’s economic engines. While economic growth is a laudable objective, outsized federal spending may impact the financial markets. If the federal government is forced to pay higher interest rates to entice investors to fund the debt, this action could lead to higher interest rates on other types of bonds as well in response to investor demand.
Bonds can help investors balance a portfolio weighted to stock funds or other assets. When making decisions about investments, it is important to weigh both the benefits and the risks associated with bonds and any other assets that you own.
1Sources: Standard & Poor’s; Barclays Capital. Stocks are represented by the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, bonds by the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index, volatility by standard deviation. Results are for the 30-year period ending December 31, 2011. You cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Investing in stocks involves risks, including loss of principal. Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and are subject to availability and change in price.
2Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation is represented by the Consumer Price Index. Historical average is for the period between 1926 and 2011.
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May 2012 — This column is provided through the Financial Planning Association, the membership organization for the financial planning community, and is brought to you by D3 Financial Counselors, a local member of FPA.