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Squeezing more out of bonds in a low-rate world

Good luck to you if you're waiting for rising interest rates to bump up your investment returns.

There's pretty much no evidence to support the case for rising rates in the year ahead. In fact, a forecasting firm called Capital Economics said this week that the next move in interest rates for the Bank of Canada is more likely to be down than up. That's a contrarian take, but it still reinforces the idea that rates will not rise any time soon.

If you're looking to squeeze more out of bonds in a low-rate world, here are two options: High-yield bonds and emerging-markets bonds. "There's a good case to be made for long-term strategic allocation to a portfolio with these assets," said Greg Nott, chief investment officer of Russell Investments Canada. "They have very good risk-return characteristics."

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High-yield bonds are issued by companies that aren't strong enough financially to qualify for what's known as an investment-grade credit rating. They're riskier investments than government or blue-chip companies, so they offer higher yields. Emerging-markets bonds – issued by either countries or corporations – are similar in combining more risk and higher returns.

How much higher? A five-year Government of Canada bond yields about 1.3 per cent these days, and five-year GICs top out around 2.25 to 2.8 per cent. Mr. Nott said the Russell Global High Income Bond Pool, a fund product for retail investors that mixes high-yield and emerging-markets bonds, has a yield of about 7 per cent before fees. Depending on which series of the fund you buy, net yields come in around 5 per cent or better.

If weighted properly, Mr. Nott says it makes sense to hold both types of bonds in the same portfolio. He suggests a combined weighting starting at 5 per cent of a portfolio and going no higher than 10 per cent for risk-tolerant investors.

Don't clear out space for these bonds strictly by ejecting low-yielding but safe government and blue-chip corporate bonds. Mr. Nott said Russell's research has found that emerging-markets and high-yield bonds work best when you allocate some to the stock side of your portfolio and some to the bond side.

The background here is that unlike government bonds, high-yield and emerging-markets bonds will not provide a refuge when the stock markets plunge. The question in a fast-falling stock market is not whether these types of bonds will fall in price, but by how much. Investors will put up with this higher level of volatility in exchange for the high yields.

Now for the details in mixing high-yield and emerging-markets bonds into your portfolio. For a 5-per-cent total weighting in these two categories, Mr. Nott suggests adding three percentage points to your stock holdings and two percentage points to bonds. "Doing this allowed us to reduce the expected volatility [of a portfolio] and, even though we're lowering [the] equities [portion], still maintain the same respective returns."

Add high-yield and emerging-markets bonds strictly to the bond side of a portfolio and you get the potential for higher returns, but also more volatility. Add them to the stocks side and you get both lower volatility and lower returns.

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Neither high-yield nor emerging-markets bonds are any sort of a bargain right now. Russell Global High Income Bond Pool A has a gain of 12.95 per cent for the year to Oct. 31, the biggest high-yield bond mutual funds are up 5 to 13 per cent and a pair of emerging-markets bond funds are up in the area of 11 per cent. Mr. Nott considers both categories to be fairly valued – neither cheap nor expensive.

An issue investors should be aware of with high-yield debt is that strong demand from investors has caused some deterioration in the quality of bonds. Covenants protecting investors if an issuer of high-yield bonds runs into financial trouble have softened in some cases, and financially weak companies are issuing bonds when in the past they might have been shunned in the market.

All of this argues for the instant diversification of a fund – ETF or mutual fund. ETFs have much lower fees and more transparency in terms of what they hold at any given time. But Mr. Nott said there are benefits to using actively managed funds for high-yield bonds as opposed to using index-tracking ETFs.

He said the most-followed high-yield indexes give the largest weighting to the most indebted companies. The bonds issued by these companies tend to do particularly well in good times for high yield, and in bad times they sell off sharply. The net result is a higher level of volatility than investors may find in actively managed bond funds, where managers can underweight the big names.

The current malaise in the economy is actually a plus for high-yield bonds, Mr. Nott said. High-yield bonds outperform government bonds and stocks when the economy is growing slowly; they rank behind corporate bonds and ahead of stocks in a weak economy; and they lag stocks and beat corporate bonds in a strong economy.

The financial underpinnings of emerging-markets bonds are actually strong, especially compared with the developed world. Mr. Nott's data shows that Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Russia beat the United States, Britain and Canada in measures such as the unemployment rate and debt-to-GDP ratio. And yet 10-year government bond yields for these four emerging markets range from roughly 5.7 per cent for Indonesia to 9.6 per cent for Brazil.

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Mr. Nott said these higher yields reflect the generalized aversion to risk that investors have shown since the financial crisis, as well as concerns over the way in which investors would be treated in case of a default. Still, he believes there's room for emerging-market bond yields to fall, while developed-market bond yields rise in the years ahead. "Will they get equal? Probably not any time soon. But will there be a modest degree of convergence? We expect so."

Emerging-markets and high-yield bonds are not bargain priced, and they're vulnerable to financial market upset. But if added with care to a portfolio, they can do good things. Give them some thought if you're waiting for rising interest rates to bump up your returns and can handle a little risk.

For more personal finance coverage, follow me on Twitter (@rcarrick) and Facebook (Rob Carrick).

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About the Author
Personal Finance Columnist

Rob Carrick has been writing about personal finance, business and economics for close to 20 years. He joined The Globe and Mail in late 1996 as an investment reporter and has been personal finance columnist since November 1998. Rob's personal finance columns appear in The Globe on Tuesday and Thursday, and his Portfolio Strategy column for investors appears on Saturday. More


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