Treasury Funds: Get These Time Bombs Out of Your Portfolio

Alexander Green
by Alexander Green, Chief Investment Strategist, The Oxford Club

Treasury Funds: Get These Time Bombs Out of Your Portfolio

by Alexander Green, Chief Investment Strategist

Monday, June 21, 2010: Issue #1285

Tens of millions of investors have a ticking time bomb in their fixed-income portfolios.

Are you one of them? If so, there's still time to defuse it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an Investment U column entitled, "Why the Safest Investment is Now One of the Riskiest."

I noted that investors - frustrated by the microscopic yields on money market funds and certificates of deposit (CDs) - have poured money into longer-term Treasury funds.

Their thinking is simple. Too simple: "These funds yield over 5%, not bad in this environment, and the bonds they hold are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of Uncle Sam. What's to worry about?"


Aren't Treasury Funds Free of Risk?

Unlike individuals, corporations, and municipalities, the federal government can simply create money to meet any obligations. U.S. Treasuries are thus free of credit risk. But they aren't free of interest-rate risk.

When interest rates go up, Treasury bond prices go down. Yet investors are comforting themselves that inflation isn't currently a problem and that long-term rates remain near historic lows.

Don't be fooled. There is a monster on the horizon - and he makes Beowulf's Grindel look like Barney.

  • Over the past 18 months, the federal debt has surged from $5.5 trillion to more than $8.6 trillion.

  • Two years ago, it was 38% of GDP. Today, it's 59% of GDP. And by the Congressional Budget Office's own estimates, it's going much higher still.

This is dangerous. Yet inflation has remained remarkably subdued so far. But understand that if the government opts to stimulate the economy further - especially if some emergency action is needed - short-term rates are already at zero.

Having already thrown the kitchen sink at the slowdown from a monetary standpoint, the federal government will almost certainly opt to spend even more dramatically.

The bond markets will not take this news well. Long-term rates are likely to spike. And when they do, it will get real ugly, real quick.

Investors always think they have time to move out of longer obligations before that happens. But that is not likely to be true...

The Triple Threat to Treasury Funds

Between early October 1979 and late February 1980, for example, the yield on the 10-year note rose almost four percentage points, driving a stake through most people's bond portfolios.

Making matters worse, millions of Mom-and-Pop investors have unwittingly plunged into leveraged bond funds in recent years, often on their brokers' recommendation.

Investment U - What's It Mean?

Leveraged bond funds borrow money in the short-term to buy more longer-dated issues and enhance the funds' yields. This is all well and good when rates are flat to lower. But when rates spike higher, look out below. The same thing will happen to these funds as to a margined stock portfolio in a correction.

In fact, leveraged closed-end bond fund investors could get hit with a triple-whammy...

  • The bonds in the fund will drop when interest rates rise.

  • The drop will be compounded by the fact that the portfolio is leveraged.

  • The fund could plunge to a deep discount to its net asset value, too.

Become a Bomb Disposal Expert... On Your Portfolio

Not pretty. So what to do?

  • First, check to see what percentage of your portfolio is in long-term bonds. It shouldn't be more than 10% as a maximum (as protection against a deflationary scenario).
  • Second, visit and type in the symbols for your fixed-income ETFs or closed-end funds.

Then look at the number beside the fund's "effective leverage." Zero means the fund is unleveraged. But some may be leveraged up to 40% or more. (That's how these funds are able to yield more than the bonds they invest in, even after expenses.)

In sum, this is a time to pare back your long-term bond holdings and eliminate most of your leveraged holdings.

Don't take these words lightly. There is danger on the horizon. But if you act now, there's still time to get that ticking time bomb out of your portfolio.

Good investing,

Alexander Green

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