The real value of bonds

Text size: aA aA aA
Despite falling bond prices, fixed income has a critical role to play in your portfolio, says our Chief Investment Office. Find out why.
July 13, 2022
When interest rates rise, the price of bonds tends to decline. That's just what's been happening this year as the Federal Reserve hikes rates in an attempt to tame inflation, leaving investors wondering: "What place does fixed income have in my portfolio now?"
Especially during uncertain economic times, bonds remain an important defense for long-term investors looking to diversify and balance riskier assets.
— Chris Hyzy,
Chief Investment Officer,
Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank
The role of bonds in your portfolio hasn't changed, says our Chief Investment Office. If anything, it may have become more critical. "Especially during uncertain economic times, bonds remain an important defense for long-term investors looking to diversify and balance riskier assets," says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. And after years when yields remained near zero, retirees and others may once again find bonds to be an attractive source of steady, reliable investment income.
Two recent reports from the Chief Investment Office (CIO), "Why Own Fixed Income in a Rising Interest Rate Environment? (PDF)" and "Understanding and Managing Fixed Income in a Rising Rate Environment (PDF)," detail some ways bonds can help long-term investors achieve their goals. Here, Hyzy and Matthew Diczok, head of fixed income strategy in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank, answer key questions many bond investors have now. Watch the video below for more insights from Diczok.

CIO roundtable: Investing for a year of change
Onscreen copy: Please see important information at the end of this program. Recorded 2/28/18.
Matthew Diczok
Fixed Income Strategist, Chief Investment Office
Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank
Matt Diczok: Stocks and bonds — they're two words that are often paired together, but they're very different. Stocks are in the news pretty much daily, especially when markets are volatile.
Bonds, on the other hand, are usually talked about less — and are a little more complicated… But they could play a really important role for investors, especially when markets are unsettled. To compare the two, if owning a stock is like owning a little piece of a company, owning a bond is like owning a little piece of a loan.
Many types of borrowers — companies, governments, government agencies — issue bonds to fund a wide range of activities…
Everything from building roads and bridges, to investing in new plants and equipment, to buying other companies.
And the investors, called bondholders, get regular interest payments in return for lending money to these borrowers.
That's the primary benefit of bonds: They offer a set interest rate — also known as the "coupon rate" — at regular intervals until the end of a bond's term, or its "maturity date."
As long as the bond issuer doesn't default, something known as "credit risk" — you'll receive your investment — the "principal" amount — at that maturity date.
So let's say you buy a 10-year, $1,000 dollar bond paying five percent interest:
You'll receive fifty dollars every year for 10 years, and when the bond matures, you'll get that $1000 back.
There are many different kinds of bonds issued, and which types you choose for your portfolio will depend on your goals, time horizon and how much risk you're comfortable with.
For example, U.S. Treasury bonds are backed by "the full faith and credit of the U.S. government," and therefore are considered the safest type of bonds, with no credit risk. For that reason, though, the interest rate they pay is relatively low.
(Alt Text: A picture of a lever comes on screen with two columns on either end to illustrate the types of bonds. On the left it has "more risk" at the top and "less risk" on the bottom. One the right it has "Lower return" at the top and "higher return" at the bottom. "U.S. Treasury Bonds" comes on screen and points to the "less risk" and "lower return" portions of the columns.)
State and local governments also issue bonds — known as "Municipals" — as do "investment grade" companies — who issue corporate bonds.
(Alt Text: A picture of a lever comes on screen with two columns on either end to illustrate the types of bonds. On the left it has "more risk" at the top and "less risk" on the bottom. One the right it has "Lower return" at the top and "higher return" at the bottom. "Municipals and investment grade corporate bonds" comes on screen and points to the middle of each column to illustrate moderate risk and moderate returns.)
Both types of issuers generally have strong credit ratings, and offer slightly higher yields than Treasurys for slightly higher credit risk.
"High-yield" corporate bonds and some international bonds — on the other hand — carry higher coupon rates but come with significantly more risk.
(Alt Text: A picture of a lever comes on screen with two columns on either end to illustrate the types of bonds. On the left it has "more risk" at the top and "less risk" on the bottom. One the right it has "Lower return" at the top and "higher return" at the bottom. "High-yield corporate & international bonds" comes on screen and points to the "more risk" and "higher return" parts of the columns.)
So there's always a trade-off between the coupon a bond pays and the amount of credit risk it presents to its bondholders
Another important factor: In general, the longer the time until a bond matures, the higher coupon rate you'll receive. So a 30-year Treasury bond will generally pay a higher rate of interest than one with a maturity of 5 or 10 years for example.
(Alt Text: A bar with 2 year at the bottom goes up to 30 years at the top while a percentage bubble illustrates how the percentage rate goes up for the longer the bond maturity.
When it comes to your investments, Bonds matter for several reasons.
First, they can provide you with a relatively predictable income stream.
  1. Predictable Income Stream

    Second, bond prices don't vary as much as stock prices do. So bonds can potentially provide a source of stability in a portfolio.
  1. Potential Source of Stability

    Finally, bond prices may move differently than stock prices — rising in price as stock prices fall.
  1. Prices may move differently than stocks

    This means they should be considered an essential part of a well-diversified portfolio.

    Whatever approach you take, knowing your tolerance for risk, your financial goals, and your timeframe for meeting those goals are essential in assessing how many and what type of bonds are best for you.
Know your:
  • risk tolerance
  • financial goals
  • timeframe
Investing in fixed-income securities may involve certain risks, including the credit quality of individual issuers, possible prepayments, market or economic developments and yields and share price fluctuations due to changes in interest rates. When interest rates go up, bond prices typically drop, and vice versa.
Investing involves risk including possible loss of principal. Asset allocation, rebalancing and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Investments in high-yield bonds (sometimes referred to as "junk bonds") offer the potential for high current income and attractive total return, but involve certain risks. Changes in economic conditions or other circumstances may adversely affect a junk bond issuer's ability to make principal and interest payments.
Income from investing in municipal bonds is generally exempt from Federal and state taxes for residents of the issuing state. While the interest income is tax-exempt, any capital gains distributed are taxable to the investor. Income for some investors may be subject to the Federal alternative minimum tax (AMT).
Investments focused in a certain industry may pose additional risks due to lack of diversification, industry volatility, economic turmoil, susceptibility to economic, political or regulatory risks, and other sector concentration risks.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers, were current as of February 28, 2018 and are subject to change without notice at any time, and may differ from views expressed by Merrill or other divisions of Bank of America Corporation. These discussions are provided for informational purposes only and should not be used or construed as a recommendation of any service, security or sector.
The investments or strategies presented do not take into account the investment objectives or financial needs of particular investors. It is important that you consider this information in the context of your personal risk tolerance and investment goals. Due to the time-sensitive nature of the content and because investment opinions may have changed since the time any comments were made by research analysts, the latest Merrill investment opinion and investment risk rating for any particular security discussed should be reviewed, including important disclosures, before making an investment decision.
The information presented here is not intended to be either a specific offer to sell or provide, or a specific recommendation to buy any particular product or service.
This information discusses general market activity, industry or sector trends, or other broad-based economic, market or political conditions and should not be construed as research or investment advice. The investments discussed have varying degrees of risk. Some of the risks involved with equities include the possibility that the value of the stocks may fluctuate in response to events specific to the companies or markets, as well as economic, political or social events in the U.S. or abroad. All sector and asset allocation recommendations must be considered by each individual investor to determine if the sector is suitable for their own portfolio based upon their own goals, time horizon, and risk tolerances.
Equity securities are subject to stock market fluctuations that occur in response to economic and business developments.
Neither Merrill nor any of its affiliates or financial advisors provide legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
Merrill Private Wealth Management is a division of MLPF&S that offers a broad array of personalized wealth management products and services. Both brokerage and investment advisory services (including financial planning) are offered by the Private Wealth Advisors through MLPF&S. The nature and degree of advice and assistance provided, the fees charged, and client rights and Merrill's obligations will differ among these services. Investments involve risk, including the possible loss of principal investment.
Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated (also referred to as "MLPF&S" or "Merrill") makes available certain investment products sponsored, managed, distributed or provided by companies that are affiliates of Bank of America Corporation ("BofA Corp."). MLPF&S is a registered broker-dealer, member SIPC and wholly owned subsidiary of BofA Corp.
Investment products:
Are Not FDIC Insured Are Not Bank Guaranteed May Lose Value

What risks do falling bond prices pose for my portfolio?

Buyers naturally prefer newer bonds paying higher yields — that's why, as interest rates rise, the price of existing bonds, pegged to a lower rate, declines. But falling prices should be of concern mainly to investors who buy bonds in hopes of selling them before maturity, Diczok says. "For those who invest and hold onto bonds for diversification, stability and income, price fluctuations have less impact," he notes. "You still receive the same steady income you expected, along with return of principal when the bonds mature."
And keep in mind that higher interest rates generally mean higher income, or yield, from the bonds you purchase. One way to capture those higher yields is through bond laddering, buying a series of bonds at different maturities. When one "rung" of bonds matures, you can reinvest in a new one paying potentially higher yields (assuming rates continue to rise). While laddering may be a good option for investors who buy individual bonds, Diczok says, "those who invest in bond funds will naturally benefit from the same laddering effect, since funds continually buy new bonds at different maturities."
Those who invest in bond funds will naturally benefit from the same laddering effect, since funds continually buy new bonds at different maturities.
— Matthew Diczok,
head of fixed income strategy, Chief Investment Office,
Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

How can bonds help to diversify my investments?

One common misconception is that when stocks perform poorly, bonds always perform well, and vice versa. That's usually — but not always — the case, Hyzy says, and investors should not be surprised, especially during volatile years, if bond and stock prices temporarily decline or rise at the same time. "The diversification value of bonds doesn't come from an automatic inverse relationship with stocks, but because they operate independently," he adds.
Those differences bear out over time, with bonds historically holding up well through extended stock declines. And a key diversification benefit has less to do with performance than with the nature of the assets. While stocks can lose all or most of their value, bonds (except in cases of default) return the principal to the investor when the bond matures.

What types of bonds should I consider now?

"For the purposes of diversification and mitigating risk, the focus should be on high-quality bonds," Diczok says. "These include U.S. Treasurys, agency mortgage-backed securities (which are backed by the federal government), investment-grade corporate bonds and investment-grade municipal bonds." While no investment is risk-free, these bonds may come close. He adds, "The chance of individual high-quality bonds defaulting is extremely low, and investing in a very diversified fund of high-quality bonds helps reduces that risk even further."
For some investors, lower-quality corporate bonds or emerging markets bonds may offer the potential for higher yields. Yet, much like stocks, these are higher-risk investments that should be viewed as a separate investment category from the bonds you rely on for diversification and stability, Diczok adds.

Could bonds become a reliable source of retirement income again?

In recent years, when extremely low interest rates prevailed, retirees and others seeking investment income have had to seek income from higher-risk alternatives such as dividend-paying stocks. That's changing, Diczok says. "While today's higher rates may be concerning for consumers and the larger economy, they do offer retirees the potential for better, more reliable income than we've seen in the past," he adds. "We see pension funds and other plans that invest on behalf of retirees taking advantage of higher interest rates."
If you're in or near retirement, you may want to hold bonds with longer rather than shorter durations, since they typically pay higher rates, Diczok advises. "With shorter-term bonds, you lose more to inflation each year."

Could bonds protect my portfolio from inflation?

While higher yields are certainly welcome at a time when consumer prices are rising, "it's important not to ask too much from bonds," Hyzy says. Bonds paying a fixed rate of interest won't keep pace if prices continue to rise. "Stocks, real estate, commodities and real assets may provide better protection against rising prices," Hyzy says.
Thus, it's important to stay invested in a diverse array of stocks and other assets as well, he notes. "The most important role of fixed Income in a portfolio is to help mitigate losses in market downturns," Hyzy adds, "and investors should try to resist the temptation to remove high-quality bonds from portfolios."
Keep up with investing insights from Hyzy and the Chief Investment Office by tuning in regularly to the CIO Market Update audiocast series.

Suggested for you

  • For helpful tools and resources on how to incorporate bonds in your portfolio, visit our Fixed-Income Investing page
  • Use our Fixed-Income Screener (login required) to search for individual bonds that meet your specific criteria

Opinions are as of the date of this article, 7/13/22, and are subject to change.