December 4, 2021

Your Money: Taking a Cue From Bernanke a Little Too Far

You can hardly blame them. Investors have been fleeing bonds in droves; a record $76.5 billion poured out of bond funds and exchange-traded funds during the month of June through Wednesday. That exceeds the previous record, according to TrimTabs, when $41.8 billion streamed out of the funds in October 2008 and the financial crisis was in full force.

But the rush for the exits really means one thing: investors are betting that interest rates are about to begin their upward trajectory, something that’s been expected for several years now.

Their cue came from the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, who recently suggested that the economic recovery might allow the central bank to ease its efforts to stimulate the economy. That includes scaling back its bond-buying program beginning later this year.

So the big fear is that interest rates are poised to rise much further, driving down bond prices; the two move in opposite directions.

A Barclays index tracking a broad swath of investment-grade bonds lost 3.77 percent from the beginning of May through Thursday, according to Morningstar. United States government notes with maturities of 10 years or longer, however, lost an average of 10.8 percent over the same period.

Making a bet on interest rates is no different from trying to predict the next big drop in stocks, or jumping into the market when it appears to be poised to surge higher. These sort of emotional moves are exactly why research shows that investors’ returns tend to trail the broader market.

And it’s also why many financial advisers suggest ignoring the noise, as long as you have a smart assortment of bond funds that will provide stability when stocks inevitably tumble once again.

“It’s a futile game to base portfolio moves on interest rate guesses,” said Milo Benningfield, a financial adviser in San Francisco. “We don’t have to look any further than highly regarded Pimco manager Bill Gross, whose horrible interest rate bet against Treasuries in 2011 landed him in the bottom 15 percent of fund managers in his category that year. Investors should take a strategic approach designed around the reason they hold bonds — and then sit tight whenever hedge funds and other institutions shake the ground around them.”

The main reason longer-term investors hold bonds, of course, is to provide a steadying force. And though today’s lower yields provide less of a cushion — the 10-year Treasury is yielding about 2.5 percent — bonds still remain the best, if imperfect, foil to stocks.

“The role of bonds in a portfolio has always been to be a ballast or a diversifier to equity risk,” said Francis Kinniry, a principal in the Vanguard Investment Strategy Group. “And that is very true today. Yields are low, but this is what a bear market in bonds looks like.”

So, yes, losses are indeed more probable than they have been in recent years. From 1976 through Jan. 31, 2013, high-quality bonds yielded an average of 7.3 percent, according to a recent Vanguard , which provided a nice cushion. For instance, if you had a portfolio of 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds — and stocks fell by 20 percent — the overall portfolio would have lost 9.1 percent. If the market plummeted 40 percent, the entire pile of money would be worth 21 percent less.

The situation is a bit different now. Assuming a more conservative average return on bonds of 1.9 percent — a reasonable estimate based on bond yields now, according to Vanguard — the same 20 percent drop in the stock market would cause the overall portfolio to decline by about two percentage points more, or 11.2 percent. If the market plummeted by 40 percent, the portfolio would lose 23 percent.

“Investors have been conditioned by higher bond yields going into both bear markets in the last decade to believe that bonds will substantially offset stock declines,” Mr. Benningfield added.

So perhaps the loss from the bonds somehow feels worse because it’s not something investors are accustomed to. And the memories of the stock market collapse of 2008-9 are still fresh enough.

“People are using adjectives like ‘blood bath’ and ‘devastation,’ but we are talking about a negative 3 percent return,” said Mr. Kinniry, referring to the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index fund, which is down by that amount year-to-date.

Even the big bond market sell-off in 1994, which many refer to as a “massacre,” doesn’t seem quite as violent as that moniker suggests. As Mr. Kinniry points out, the same index fund lost 5.3 percent that year, after interest rates spiked by 2.83 percent. If the same sort of situation were to play out now, he said the returns would be significantly worse because bond yields are lower than they were back then. “You might lose about 8 percent,” he said, adding that losses could be deeper depending on how quickly rates rose, among other factors. But typically, “we’re talking about single-digit losses.”

Still, some advisers suggested taking a closer look at your overall allocation to stocks, particularly if you’re not well diversified, since bonds will provide less protection.

For most investors, holding bonds through low-cost index funds remains the most prudent course. People who invest in individual bonds don’t have to worry about fluctuations in their price because they can continue to hold the bond and collect their interest payments until maturity, at which point they’ll collect its face value (unless, of course, the bond issuer defaults). But you need to have a good pile of cash — some experts say $500,000, even more — to assemble a diversified portfolio of municipal and corporate bonds (though you don’t need quite as much for Treasuries, since they’re backed by the government).

You can figure out how sensitive your fund is to interest rates by looking at its duration, which essentially measures how long it will take to receive all of your money back, on average, from interest and your original investment. Generally speaking, for every percentage point that interest rates rise (or fall), a bond’s value will decline (or increase) by its duration, which is stated in years. Bond funds with shorter durations are less susceptible to interest rate risk — the faster a bond matures, the thinking goes, the more quickly you can reinvest the money at a higher interest rate.

That means a fund like the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index fund, which has a duration of 5.5 years, would decline by about 5.5 percent. But since the fund also pays investors income — it has a yield of about 1.7 percent — it would actually only post a total loss of about 3.8 percent. (Future returns would be one percentage point higher, too, thanks to the rise in rates).

But if even that feels too risky, experts say you can put some of your bond money into a diversified index fund with an even shorter duration. The trade-off, of course, is that you will earn less income. That might not matter once you remind yourself why you own bonds at all.

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Your Money: New Tax Laws Cover Cost Basis of Investments

Instead, reporting those numbers on your tax return was generally based on the honor system: You reported how much you bought the stock for, and if you lost track or couldn’t remember, you made your best guess. The tax collectors didn’t have an automated way of checking your calculations.

Those days are over, at least in part. For the second consecutive tax season, a new law requires your investment brokerage firm to report to the I.R.S. the price you paid for certain taxable investments, known as your cost basis, a figure that also takes into account items like reinvested dividends, stock splits and company mergers. With your cost basis in hand, you can then figure out how much you’ve gained or lost when you sold the investment, which is then reported on the Schedule D tax form.

“I considered the Schedule D as the last bastion of the Honest John system,” said Nico Willis, chief executive of NetWorth Services, a company based in Phoenix, that calculates cost basis for investors. “The spotlight is now on, and as a result, that is making things a lot more complicated because you just can’t guess anymore.”

The new reporting rules, signed into law as part of the big bailout legislation in 2008, are being phased in over a few years and don’t necessarily apply to all of your taxable holdings: banks and brokers were required to begin tracking and reporting the cost basis of stocks in taxable accounts bought in 2011 or later. Mutual funds, dividend-reinvestment plans and certain exchange-traded funds purchased beginning in 2012 are subject to the new rules. That means this is the first tax year these funds will be reported to the I.R.S. Reporting for bonds and option contracts doesn’t begin until next year.  

Technically, the changes should eventually make it easier to figure out capital gains or losses. But for now, you’re more likely to be befuddled by the fact that the sale of some of your taxable investments is covered, while the sale of others is not, though all of this is broken down on your 1099-B tax form prepared by your bank or brokerage firm. Given the added complexity, tax experts suggest going over everything carefully to avoid setting off an inquiry from the I.R.S.

“If you bought a mutual fund 10 years ago that you are still holding onto and reinvesting the dividends, you will have a combination of covered and noncovered securities,” said Joel M. Dickson, a tax specialist at Vanguard. “It can be a little confusing. And the onus is still on the investor to report their cost basis, regardless of whether it is covered or not covered” by the new rules.

The new rules will also require you to pay closer attention to which specific shares you want to sell. Before, most investors just waited until tax season to select which lots, or groups of shares purchased in the same transaction, they sold first. (Even though, technically, they were supposed to decide at the time of the sale.) And naturally they would pick the ones that would be best for their tax situation. Now, you need to decide how you want to calculate your cost basis within three days of the trade settling, tax experts said, and brokerage firms including Vanguard and Charles Schwab said they would lay out the choices at the point of sale.

The method you choose can have a pretty drastic impact on your tax bill, at least in some cases. Let’s say you bought $1,000 of Bank of America stock, or about 62 shares, back in August 1980 (the company was then known as Nations Bank). And assume you reinvested all dividends back into the same stock. Now, 13 years later, your stock holdings are worth about $19,000. If you sold $10,000 of the stock earlier this week, or about 830 shares, you would have the option of generating a giant gain, or a big loss, all depending on what method you use. For instance, if you sold the oldest shares first, you would log a capital gain of more than $7,100. But if you sold the newest shares first, you could post a loss of more than $14,000, according to calculations by NetBasis, the unit of NetWorth Services that provides cost basis calculations for investors.

If you don’t pick a specific method, most brokerage firms will revert to their default, whereby they sell your oldest shares first, known as first in first out, or FIFO. (This applies to stocks and exchange-traded funds.  For mutual funds, the default method is a bit different; they use the average cost of the shares held.)

“When people buy stock over time, FIFO may not be the best option,” said Thomas B. Cooke, a tax and business law professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “That makes it very incumbent on investors when they get their confirmation statement to make sure the right stock was sold.”

You can choose from several different methods: You can sell the newest lots first, for instance, or you can unload the highest- or lowest-cost shares first. Or, your brokerage firm may have a tool to help you decide. At Schwab, for instance, a tax lot optimizer will choose the lots that let you take losses first. (Of course, if you are selling all of your stock, choosing a method is a moot point.)

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Bucks: How You Use Your 401(k) Brokerage Window

In this weekend’s Your Money column, I suggest that people who are unhappy with the investment options that their employer offers on the menu in their 401(k) or similar plan put in a request for something called a brokerage or mutual fund window.

Also known as a self-directed plan, this allows people to go beyond the 10 or 20 options that an employer has chosen and select from thousands of other mutual or exchange-traded funds. Sometimes, people can invest in individual stocks and other securities, too.

For those of you who already have access to this option, are you using it? If so, what are you using it for? And what does it cost you?

And by all means, if you think that I’m dead wrong and that nobody should be able to fling open the window like this, please explain why in the comments below.

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Bucks: How You Solved Your 401(k) Problem

In this weekend’s Your Money column, I tell the tale of Alan Wenker, who spent 10 years hunting for a better 401(k) for his fellow workers and himself.

He finally determined that mutual funds from Dimensional Fund Advisors were the best choice and used a local financial adviser in Minneapolis to help him transfer his 401(k) plan’s assets to their new home.

Others may have found different solutions, though. In the column, I mention retirement plan administrators like Employee Fiduciary, the Online 401(k) and Invest n Retire. I also suggest looking at AssetBuilder’s 401(k) plans and keeping an eye out for Schwab’s new plans that will only contain exchange-traded funds.

Have you helped fix your 401(k) or other, similar retirement plan? If so, please tell us a bit about the size of the plan, the problems it faced, what you did to solve them and who helped you do so.

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