Consider a Bond Ladder for Rising Interest Rates

After dropping the benchmark federal funds rate to a range of 0%–0.25% early in the pandemic, the Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve has begun raising the rate aggressively in response to high inflation and a stronger economy. Following an initial 0.25% increase in March 2022 and a 0.5% increase in May, the Committee raised the rate by 0.75% at its June meeting — the first 0.75-percentage-point increase since 1994 — to a target range of 1.5%–1.75%. June projections indicate the rate could rise to a range of 3.25%–3.5% by the end of 2022, with an additional one or two 0.25-percentage-point increases in 2023.1 

Raising the federal funds rate places upward pressure on a wide range of interest rates, including the cost of borrowing through bond issues. When interest rates go up, the prices of existing bonds typically fall, because new bonds with higher yields are more attractive. Investors are also less willing to tie up their funds for a long time, so bonds with longer maturity dates are generally more sensitive to rate changes than shorter-dated bonds. Yet shorter-dated bonds usually have lower yields.

Despite the challenges, bonds are a mainstay for conservative investors who may prioritize the preservation of principal over returns, as well as retirees in need of a predictable income stream.

Step by Step

One way to address rising rates is to create a bond ladder, a portfolio of bonds with maturities that are spaced out at regular intervals over a certain number of years. For example, a five-year ladder might have 20% of the bonds mature each year. This strategy puts an investor’s money to work systematically, without trying to predict rate changes.

In the current situation, with rates projected to rise over a two- to three-year period, it might make sense to create a short bond ladder now and a longer ladder when rates appear to have stabilized. Keep in mind that these are only projections, based on current conditions, and may not come to pass. The actual direction of interest rates might change.

Reinvesting or Taking Withdrawals

When bonds from the lowest rung of the ladder mature, the funds are often reinvested at the long end of the ladder. When rates are rising, investors who reinvest the funds may be able to increase their cash flow by capturing higher yields on new issues. Or a ladder might be part of a withdrawal strategy in which the returned principal from maturing bonds is dedicated to retirement spending.

Bond ladders may vary in size and structure, and could include different types of bonds depending on an investor’s time horizon, risk tolerance, goals, and personal preference. Owning a diversified mix of bond investments might also help cushion the effects of interest rate and credit risk in a portfolio. Diversification is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

Federal Funds Path?

This chart illustrates the federal funds target range at the end of 2021 and future year-end projections released by the Federal Open Market Committee after its June 2022 meeting. 

Green boxes represent actual or projected 0.25% federal funds target ranges

Based on assessments of the majority of Committee members.

Source: Federal Reserve, June 2022

Individual Bonds vs. ETFs

Buying individual bonds provides certainty, because investors know exactly how much they will earn if they hold a bond to maturity, unless the issuer defaults. However, individual bonds are typically sold in minimum denominations of $1,000 to $5,000, so creating a bond ladder with a sufficient level of diversification might require a sizable investment.

A similar approach involves laddering bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that have defined maturity dates. These funds, typically called target maturity ETFs, generally hold many bonds that mature in the same year the ETF will liquidate and return assets to shareholders. Target maturity ETFs may enhance diversification and provide liquidity, but unlike individual bonds, the income payments and final distribution rate are not fully predictable. Bond ETFs are subject to the same inflation, interest rate, and credit risks associated with their underlying bonds.

Building by Units

Another way to ladder the fixed-income portion of your portfolio is by purchasing unit investment trusts (UITs) with staggered termination dates. Bond-based UITs typically hold a varied portfolio of bonds with maturity dates that coincide with the termination date of the trust, at which point the funds can be used however the investor wishes. The UIT sponsor may offer the opportunity to roll over the proceeds to a new UIT.

The principal value of bonds, ETFs, and UITs will fluctuate with changes in market conditions. ETF shares and UIT units, when sold, and bonds redeemed prior to maturity may be worth more or less than their original cost. UITs may carry additional risks, including the potential for a downturn in the financial condition of the issuers of the underlying securities. Distributions from UITs are not guaranteed.

Exchange-traded funds and unit investment trusts are sold by prospectus. Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.

1) Federal Reserve, 2022

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