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Bond investing as rates rise

Last week, Jim McKay argued there is limited appeal of investing in developed country bonds, where real interest rates (nominal interest rates less inflation) currently provide little, or even a negative, return to bond holders.

Warren Bird, formerly Co-Head of Global Fixed Interest and Credit at Colonial First State Global Asset Management, responds:

Of course you could accept the fact that rising yields produce higher returns and just relax. I've been writing and speaking for 20 years about the misplaced fear of rising bond yields. It's a simple message: fixed interest investing is all about the interest you earn. As yields go up, you get to reinvest income or maturing bonds at those higher yields, which ratchets up your interest earnings. Bond price volatility is just that - volatility.

The best example is the return from Australian bonds to investors who entered the market just before the sell off in 1994. They bought a portfolio yielding about 6%. Over the next 3 years they actually earned 8% pa. How, when 1994 was so terrible? Well, although they earned about -5% in 1994, the reinvestment income from putting maturing money back to work at 9, 10 and 11% lifted the returns during 1995 and 1996. Yields were back around 6% after 3 years, so there's no capital gain involved - just higher reinvestment earnings. If the bear market of 1994 hadn't happened, then returns over the 3 years to 1997 would have been lower, at around 6% pa.

There's a very good reason why fund managers advise you to look at investing in bonds over a 3-5 year time frame. Because that's when the short term volatility of bond prices mostly washes out and you earn the income you expect to when you make your investment.

Sure, if you knew that a rise in yields was coming you would be sensible to shorten up your duration, avoid the mark to market loss, and then put your money back into those higher yields. But can we be so sure that yields must rise from now? They've already backed up by well over 1% during 2013 and frankly a ten year government guaranteed income stream of 4.25% pa, that will rise if yields go up, doesn't actually look too bad if you have even the slightest concerns about the health of the world economy.

Therefore, I believe that a perfectly valid strategy in a rising yield environment is simply to reinvest your cash flows and enjoy the higher returns you end up earning.

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