Has The 40-Year Bond Bull Run Come To An End?

Financial advisors have had it easy.

While this statement may come as a shock given the lack of substance, please let me explain before you take offense. Since 1981, the 10-year treasury touched 15.84 percent at its peak and has since trended down close to zero percent in 2020 and 1.88 percent since writing this piece. That is 40 years of interest rate decline all while the cost to borrow continues to remain near historic lows.

The first question to ask ourselves is whether low interest rates qualify as good news. Let’s look at three parties. To borrowers looking to borrow, good news, no, great news actually! To lenders looking to lend, not really—due to reduced margins. To conservative investors seeking income, bad news, as the rate you earn is less than the percentage increase in the cost of goods. In addition, if you are counting on fixed income investments as a primary source of retirement income, you may have more risk in your portfolio than you realize.

And if interest rates go up? The opposite is true…for most. Borrowers will end up paying more interest over time extending their personal liability. Lenders will reap the benefits of increased spreads from what interest is paid to customers and interest that banks can earn by investing. However, the fixed income investors seeking safety are put in a bind.

While I certainly don’t have a crystal ball to predict what’s going to happen in the future with interest rates, I do believe the writing is on the wall on where they’re likely headed. I want to hold advisors accountable in providing their clients all viable options for when the current bond bull run ends and a new interest cycle begins (in the opposite direction).

Back to my original statement that financial advisors have “had it easy.” The reasoning is simple and no fault to anyone. For the longest time, advisors have been properly allocating a percentage of clients’ money (usually derived from a risk or time-based allocation approach) in a combination of cash, bonds, and equities. Older the client, more weight in bonds. Younger the client, more weight in equities. This is ultimately a way of managing the client’s risk versus return appetite and hedge against stock market volatility. While simple at its core and different among individuals, this conventional wisdom may not always be appropriate going forward. Reason being, we have a whole new set of circumstances. The rise of the 10-year treasury from its bottom which can significantly impact retirees and their nest egg. Let’s take a closer look.

If we isolate the bond allocation, we normally categorize this portion of the portfolio as a low risk, principal protected and an income bearing asset. But according to the experts, Bill Gross to name one, bonds remain threatened by the inevitable “bond bubble.” Essentially, this is the risk that existing bonds become less and less worthy if interest rates rise. In addition, what about the credit risk of these companies during a pandemic? Will the company be around? Is it investment grade? How is the credit worthiness? The truth is that bonds have risks, and they need to be brought into the light. The core risk is “interest rate risk.” Let’s look at the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates.

As an example, the best way to illustrate the fundamentals is to look at zero coupon bonds which do not pay out quarterly or annual payments or “coupons” hence the name. If you buy a zero-coupon bond that is trading at $950 and has a par value of $1000 with maturity in one year, the rate of return is 5.26 percent. Not bad, right? But what if interest rates rose to 10 percent? To attract demand, the price of the existing bond to match the same return would need to decrease to $909. On the contrary, if interest rates decreased to three percent, the existing bond price would increase to $970 because of the demand in people wanting to buy given its yield of 5.26 percent. It’s now clear why advisors recommended bonds over a period of decreasing interest rates. They protected their clients’ money and made them a bunch of money if they sold before maturity. But now back to reality! What about the investors retiring in the next five to 10 years who want to secure their assets, provide a rate of return above inflation, and receive some income payments? Options are limited.

While I’m not suggesting we abandon all hope with bonds in an increasing interest rate environment, advisors should consider reducing overall bond exposure and consider incorporating fixed income alternatives. One financial instrument with similar characteristics to a bond is a fixed indexed annuity issued by an insurance company (A rated of course). This insurance contract will provide an average historical three to five percent annual yield (tied to an external index such as the S&P 500), security providing 100 percent principal protection, tax deferral, lifetime income options with inflation protection and access to money for liquidity. This type of contract offers a unique risk/reward profile for the individual and can allow advisors to plan around a core protected income source. If we look back at history from the years 1966 to 1981 when interest rates increased, you will find this bond alternative strategy will improve the overall risk adjusted return, reduce negative effects of rising interest rates, and eliminate outright downside principal risk.

To the opposition, yes, fixed indexed annuity contracts and the insurance company are mostly backed by bonds but are far different than buying a bond fund or individual bonds. Insurance companies look at a far larger window for owning bonds, which are typically 40 years or so (in comparison to five to 10-year windows). Insurance companies are more critical about volatility control vs increasing yields inside their portfolio. Since they buy in 20 to 40-year bond durations, this increases their chances of avoiding short term bond exposure risk and allows for volatility to be controlled for the company and passed on to the owner.

One major advantage to an indexed annuity are the mortality credits you receive. This is made possible through the pooling of longevity risk across individuals. Insurers use mortality tables that estimate the life expectancy of people at every age which acts as a hedging tool for people living too long and receiving payments. The “credit” is created when an individual dies too soon, thus creating a credit for someone who lives too long.

With credits on the advisor’s side, this allows less money to be allocated towards an annuity than they would need to if it were put into bonds because it can produce more output per dollar or in other words “income.” By generating more income than the bond, because of mortality credits, there would be less need to withdraw assets from a portfolio to meet the spending needs. In layman’s terms, you can retire sooner and with less money while allowing the rest of your portfolio to focus more on rate of return.

Broadly speaking, both bonds and indexed annuities serve their purpose as a fixed income asset class for consumers. But under the new set of circumstances, one may not be as appropriate as before. The truth is that the bond market moves in both directions which we haven’t seen since before 1981. When interest rates rise, bond values go down. It’s a statement like this that is so straightforward but often overlooked and unplanned for. For advisors that allocate by way of status quo, this should be a wake-up call. The idea that we can sit on our nest egg of fixed assets and draw only interest is no longer possible. Taking a step of reducing bond allocation and increasing exposure to fixed indexed annuities with the right tools can dramatically reduce the overall risk of any retirement portfolio.

As William Pollard once said, “To change is difficult. Not to change is fatal.” While I agree fatality is aggressive, we must be willing to consider changes to grow and prosper for our practice and, most importantly, for our clients.

Kyle Tomko is a field support representative at LifePro Financial Services. He has spent seven years in the financial services industry building meaningful relationships with advisors across the country and has helped to support and grow their practices each year. He coaches hundreds of financial professionals on how to build effective financial strategies that achieve their clients’ long-term goals and helps them stay educated on the latest industry trends. Tomko has a broad understanding of the brokerage world as it pertains to new business, underwriting, and sales. This deep understanding of the business has been instrumental in the value and support he provides for the advisors he works with.

Tomko can be reached at LifePro Financial Services, Inc., 11512 El Camino Real, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92130. Telephone: 888-543-3776, ext. 3281. Email: ktomko@lifepro.com.