Are bonds for losers?

stocksbonds

Returns for US Stocks and US Bonds since 1900 in real and nominal terms

No Pain, No Gain. Deal With It.

My attitude about bonds has evolved over the years.

Years ago, I had a pretty simple attitude about them: paraphrasing our President, bonds are for losers. The returns tell the story. Stocks massively outperform bonds over the long run (and cheap stocks outperform everything).

(They’re for losers unless they are bearer bonds. As I learned from Die Hard, Heat, and Beverly Hills Cop, bearer bonds are insanely cool. It’s too bad that the government discontinued these relics of a more heist-friendly time.)

Bonds historically have poor returns and sometimes struggle to keep up with inflation. Stocks traditionally have fantastic performances but have horrific drawdowns. Stocks were cut in half in 2008. They fell by 80% during the Depression. My attitude has always been that if you can’t handle the volatility, then you just need a stronger stomach. No pain, no gain. Toughen up.

With that said, a gung-ho attitude about stocks is easy when you are in your 20’s or 30’s. It was a natural thing for me to get bullish in 2009 after the market crashed. I went “all in” that year in my 401(k) into stocks with the tiny $4,000 I had saved up at the time. Being reckless at the beginning of your working career with a small amount of savings is easy. Try it when you are 65 and have your entire life savings to deal with.

My callous attitude towards “pain” was ignorant. “No pain, no gain” is an attitude you can’t afford to have if you are older and are dealing with a lifetime of savings. You don’t have a lot of high earning years ahead of you, and you might need this money to survive.

Confronting reality

I first confronted this reality when my parents needed investment advice. They asked me to look at statements provided by their financial advisor.

To be frank, the financial statements pissed me off.

The advisor had them in “safe” options appropriate for their age, but it was all stuffed into an incomprehensible soup of mutual funds. All of the funds had relatively high fees. Even worse, the advisor frequently moved in and out of funds even though they were essentially the same thing. I assume this was churning and it was merely to generate commissions.

The money was my parent’s life savings, and this guy was not treating it with the appropriate respect.

While I was growing up, I watched my parents struggle and work hard to earn this money. They would forego luxury. They always shopped with coupons; they bought store brand food, they never bought new cars, they always they worked hard at their jobs. My father is a construction worker, and my mother is a dental assistant.

They worked hard for their money and made the right decisions, and this guy was treating it like it was a game.

My first advice was simple: dump this financial advisor.

Back in college, I wanted to be a financial advisor. I changed my mind after an internship where I spent all of my time cold calling. I went through a list of phone numbers, read from a script, and asked rich and not-so-rich people to invest. After talking to the financial advisors at the firm, I realized they weren’t providing any value. When I asked them how they selected investments, they showed me software that popped out whatever fund mix the computer spit out after plugging in age and risk tolerance. The computer did the work. Their real role was sales, not guiding people or helping them.

(Yes, I *KNOW* there are good financial advisors out there. There are financial advisors that genuinely care about their clients and can provide a good service. They offer behavioral coaching when the market takes a fall, they offer tax and estate advice, and they can be a good judge of character when it comes to assessing someone’s tolerance for risk. Unfortunately, I don’t know any. I certainly don’t know any who would provide such a service for a small client like me or my family.)

Then I had to ask myself, “If I’m telling them to dump the financial advisor, what should I tell them to do instead?”

My instinct with my own money is to swing for the fences and go for the high returns. No pain, no gain.

I knew that my personal attitude was inappropriate for my parent’s level of risk tolerance and age. They couldn’t afford a “lost decade” of stock returns. They couldn’t afford to lose half of their money tomorrow. They couldn’t double down and get a second job if their investments fell apart. This money needed to last. Mine had to be worth a lot in 40 years. These are completely different objectives.

After thinking about it, I decided that the best option was the “Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund” (VTINX). It is a fund which Vanguard designed for people in my parent’s situation, who are already retired. It is 70% bonds, 30% stocks and mixed geographically. Fees are only .14%.

The fund isn’t going to provide a high rate of return, but it ought to preserve their capital if they have an emergency and need it. It’s automatically rebalanced so they don’t have to think about it.

In terms of the worst case scenario, I looked at the 2008 drawdown, and it was only 10.93%. That’s tough, but not fatal.

What about interest rates? What about the bond bubble?

Everyone you talk to in the financial world “knows” that interest rates are going up. “They’re as low as they’re ever going to be” is the popular refrain. It certainly makes sense to me. I was born in 1982, and interest rates have declined for my entire lifetime. Eventually, it has to turn around and go back to “normal”, right?

It makes sense that the final straw would be successive rounds of quantitative easing, which will cause inflation, which will ultimately spur higher interest rates.

The more I thought about it, the more it worried me when I thought about my parent’s high allocation to bonds. When interest rates rise, bond prices decline. That’s Finance 101. Did I steer them in the wrong direction? What if interest rates spike and their savings are in jeopardy?

I decided to look at the historical data concerning bond returns, particularly in rising interest rate environments. The period I chose to focus in on was the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Great Inflation (1960 – 1982)

prime rate

The prime rate from 1950 to today

There was no period for rising interest rates like the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. Having learned their lessons from the deflationary 1930s a little too well (the Fed didn’t act enough in the 1930s, which turned a panic into a prolonged hellish period of declining prices and high unemployment), the Fed played it fast and loose with monetary policy in the ’60s and ’70s.

The US government also began to play it fast and loose with fiscal policy, which was difficult to manage with the dollar tied to gold.

The “Nixon Shock”: The end of the gold standard

Paying for the Vietnam War and the Great Society was an expensive endeavor with the dollar tied to gold. Nixon’s solution was to abandon the Bretton Woods gold standard and end the dollar’s link to gold so we would have full autonomy to spend what we wanted.

The “Nixon Shock” kicked an escalating inflation situation into overdrive, with inflation reaching the double digits by the end of the 1970s. The OPEC embargo didn’t help. Economic stagnation combined with high inflation was “stagflation,” and it contributed to widespread fears that the United States had lost its mojo.

By 1979, 84% of the American people polled said they were “very dissatisfied” with the direction of the country. The malaise, as they called it, ran deep.

Paul Volcker, the Fed chairman at the time, knew that this had to stop. He took extraordinary measures to stop inflation, pushing interest rates to historic highs. By 1981, he had driven the prime rate to 20%. The high-interest rates caused a genuinely horrific recession. The recession of the early 1980s was slightly worse than the Great Recession of recent memory. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% in 1982. In comparison, it peaked at 10% in 2009.

Ronald Reagan, to his credit, stuck by Volcker’s tough medicine even though it was not in his political interest. Reagan’s poll numbers dropped into the 30s. A lesser President would have fired Volcker or publicly criticized his actions. Reagan did no such thing. He knew that inflation had to be contained and knew it was in the long-term interests of the country to beat it.

The tough medicine worked. Inflation was defeated. As inflation eased, we were able to reduce interest rates for nearly 40 years. The bond bull market has benefitted almost every U.S. asset class for the last few decades. We have been reaping the benefits of Paul Volcker and Ronald Reagan’s tough medicine for decades.

So how did bonds do during the Great Inflation?

I digress. The question I wanted to answer was how bonds held up during the Great Inflation of the 1960s and 1970s, which is the worst case scenario for interest rates rising. From 1960 to 1981, the prime rate rose from 4.5% to 20%. My instincts told me that bonds must have been completely crushed during this time period.

They weren’t crushed. However, in inflation-adjusted returns, they barely kept up. In nominal terms, they performed surprisingly well. There was only one down year (1969) in which the bond market experienced a 1.35% decline.

bond returns

While the real returns were terrible, they certainly fared better than cash or a savings account during the highest period of inflation in US history (inflation was advancing at a 10% pace, if you can imagine that).

With all of that said, in a diversified portfolio for a risk-averse investor like my parents, they served their purpose. They provided nominal returns and controlled for the drawdowns of the stock market.

Taking it back a little further, I looked at the returns of my parent’s 70/30 Vanguard portfolio and broke it out by decade. This asset allocation provided a suitable buffer for the volatility in the stock market. The decades where it performed poorly were solely due to inflation. Even though they struggled to keep up with inflation, the portfolio still held up better in those decades (the 1910s, 1940s, and 1970s) than cash in a savings account would have. The next decades (the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s), as interest rates eased, the portfolio performed extraordinarily well.

conservative portfolio

Additionally, the portfolio also protected investors during extreme market events, which is the key purpose of a bond allocation. During the Depression and the drawdown of 1929-33 (when the market declined by nearly 80%), this allocation held up well, losing only 15.88%. During the crash of 2008, the drawdown was only 7.57%. It’s also worth noting that the portfolio delivered positive returns in the 2000s, which was a “lost decade” for American stocks.

That’s what bonds are all about: in a balanced portfolio, they are for an investor who can’t take a lot of pain. They are a pain buffer. They limit the drawdowns when stocks periodically fall apart and they deliver a low return that exceeds cash in a mattress or the bank.

Bonds aren’t for losers. Bonds are for people who can’t afford short-term massive, painful, losses. They can’t look at a stock market crash and just take a philosophical approach and say “well, 10 years from now I’ll be okay.”

Yes, bonds aren’t nearly as good as stocks over the long run. Yes, they won’t do well during an inflationary period when interest rates are rising.

They’re not supposed to do those things. Bonds help risk-averse people stay the course with the equity piece of their portfolio, which will provide the real capital appreciation and long-term returns. I was wrong for scoffing at bonds as a piece of a balanced portfolio and delving into the issue made me more confident with the advice I gave my parents.

Interest rates & inflation: no one knows

Looking at the history of inflation & interest rates and taking a historical perspective towards it also gave me the sense that no one really knows where either is headed.

The confident predictions that interest rates will rise are based on the perception that interest rates aren’t “normal”, simply because they look low in the context of the last 30 years.

From a broader perspective, the last 30 years have been an unwinding of the historically unprecedented interest rates of the 1970s. Interest rates might just be around normal levels now.

You constantly hear confident forecasts from “experts”. None of them really know any more about the future than we do. They are making educated guesses, just like you and me. Just because they have an impressive title and credentials doesn’t mean they know the future.

No one really knows what the future will bring and it is wrong to steer investors away from bonds simply because we “know” interest rates are going up. At the end of the day, no one really knows anything when it comes to predicting the future.

I don’t know if the next decades will be anything like the 1960s or 1970s, but even if that’s the case, the money that my parents invested in VTINX ought to hold up, which is what I and they care about. The bond allocation ought to perform better than cash and it ought to protect them if the stock market crashes.

Again, no one knows what the future will bring. You just have to make decisions that are appropriate for your risk tolerance, not anyone else’s.

Random

  • I’ve been reading “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies“. It’s a fun book delving into the history of 1980’s teen movies, which are some of my favorite guilty pleasures. It’s making me appreciate them on an even deeper level. John Hughes was the first director to make movies in which teenagers were treated like actual human beings instead of a vehicle for the nostalgia of older people. When you see them through this context, they’re pretty amazing. I don’t think modern movies treat teenagers with the same level of respect that John Hughes did. They’re unique in this sense, which is probably why they have stood the test of time and are still popular.
  • Speaking of John Hughes . . . “Oh, you know him?”

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6 thoughts on “Are bonds for losers?”

  1. Thanks for posting. I tend to have the same view about financial advisors although I’ve yet had to deal with one. I’d like to find a ‘good one’ more so around how to structure my finances rather than which stocks to buy etc. Retirement planning in Australia is probably not a complicated as the US, but it’s becoming a moving target as politicians tinker with the rules. Very interesting about the Vanguard ETF.

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  2. Bonds don’t have the same long term returns that stocks do, thats true.

    My dad met a guy, who back in the high inflation period of the 1970s and 1980s sold his house and bought 30 year treasury bills at 18%. He sat on the 18% returns for 30 years.

    That’s a very nice move.

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  3. Not related to your overall topic on Bonds. But you talk about seniors investing at the tail end of their lives. I remember in ‘The Intelligent Investor’ (been a while since I’ve read it), Benjamin Graham talks about how it might be an idea for seniors to invest in riskier stocks that will do well for their children/grandchildren (the next generations). Whilst young investors may want to invest in bonds as they need stability if they’re going to need to buy a house etc.

    I think it really just comes down to what the investor’s goals are.

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    1. I agree. Age is one factor. There are others.

      It also comes down to how much money they have. The way I think about stocks is this: ‘can I afford to lose 50% of this?’

      A wealthy older person like Buffett can lose half of their money and be fine. He can focus on what he has to pass on to charity. He is still investing long term capital.

      This is an unusual situation. Most people his age are dependent upon their investments to generate income.

      There are a lot of factors that determine asset allocation, age is just one of them.

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