During periods of historic low interest rates like those following the financial crisis of 2008-09, bonds lose some of their attractiveness.
While stocks may be still too risky for your whole portfolio, it hurts when bond (and other interest-bearing securities) are paying next to nothing.
Thanks to the Fed, low interest rates may be the new normal for some time to come.
This leads investors in the stock market to use bonds as a "safe" deposit box of sorts. Of course, not all bonds fall into the safe category.
However, if you stick with financially strong companies or U.S. Treasury issues, you can feel fairly confident your money is safe - it may earn almost nothing in interest, however.At some point interest rates will begin to rise. When they do, you need a strategy in place to take advantage of the more attractive bonds. but first some perspective on bonds.
Bonds provide an element of stability that offsets some of the volatility of stocks.
However, they are vulnerable to economic changes that can undermine their value.
The biggest economic threat to bonds is rising interest rates. If you own a bond and interest rates go up, the value of your bond on the open market, with few exceptions, will go down.
Of course, if you plan to hold the bond to maturity the value of your bond doesn't change because interest rates change. You'll still get the amount promise when you bought the bond, all other things being equal.
However, if you plan to own bonds for investment purposes - that is you buy and sell bonds as you would stocks - then interest rates are very important.
Bond prices move inversely to interest rates. When interest rates go up, bond prices go down and when interest rates go down, bond prices go up. Remember, we're talking about previously issued bonds trading on the open market.
The inverse relationship is easy to see with this simple illustration.
A bond is issued for $10,000 for five years with a 5% coupon or interest rate, paid every six months. Then, market interest rates rise to 6%.
If you want to sell this bond, who would buy it when it is paying 1% below market rates (5% vs. 6%)? You have to sweeten the deal so the buyer gets a market rate for the bond.
You can't change the interest rate on the bond. That's fixed at 5%. You can, however change the price you will take for the bond.
The annual payment of $500 ($10,000 x 5%) must equal a 6% payment. Doing the math, you discover that the face value of the bond must be discounted to $8,333 so that the $500 fixed payment equals a 6% yield on the buyer's investment ($8,333 x 6% = $500).
If interest rates went down instead of up, you could then sell your bond at a premium over face value because the fixed interest rate would be higher than the market rate.
PLEASE NOTE: This is just an example to illustrate the relationship between interest rates and bond prices. It does not represent an actual computation. To do this calculation correctly would require a more complicated process and the answer would be different. However, the seller would still have to discount the face value of the bond to compensate for the interest rate difference.
As I noted above, none of this matters if you plan to hold the bond to maturity. Changing interest rates have no effect on existing bonds unless you plan to buy or sell them in the open market.
Because of the interest rate risk, bonds with longer terms are more risky than bonds with shorter terms. If you plan to trade bonds, be sure you understand the interest rate risks involved and how holding long-term bonds increases that risk.
One of the strategies you can employ is called a bond ladder. This is a simple way of providing some protection to interest rate changes. You can read my article on bond ladders here.