The stock market’s rally during the pandemic has been nothing short of amazing. But rising interest rates are raising the question of how long this bull market can last.
In the 12 months through March, the average general stock mutual fund tracked by Morningstar returned nearly 66 percent — a remarkable rebound after a three-month loss of nearly 22 percent at the start of last year.
The turnaround came after the Federal Reserve stepped in with support for financial markets and the economy, fueling much of the stock market’s exuberance with low interest rates.
But with the economy taking off, rates have begun to rise. At the start of a new quarter, it is a propitious moment to ask, how long can these strangely prosperous times last?
My crystal ball is no clearer now than it has ever been, alas, and I can’t time the market’s movements any better than anyone else. But this certainly a good time to assess whether you are well positioned for a possible downward shift.
As always, the best approach for long-term investors is to set up a portfolio with a reasonable, diversified asset allocation of stocks and bonds and then live with it, come what may.
Our quarterly report on investing is intended to help. If you haven’t been an investor before, we’ve included tips on how to get started. Here you will find broad coverage of recent trends, guidance for the future and reflections on personal finance in a challenging era.
It’s been a long, fine run for the stock market but a great deal of the upswing has depended on low interest rates, and in the bond market rates have been rising. Investment strategists are taking a wide array of approaches to deal with this difficult problem. For now, the bull market rides on.
Bonds provide ballast in diversified portfolios, damping the swings of the stock market and sometimes providing solid returns. Because bond yields have been rising — and yields and prices move in opposite directions — bond returns have been suffering lately. But adding a diversified selection of international bonds to domestic holdings can reduce the risk in the bond side of your investments.
Yes, the markets and the economy are complicated. That often puts people off, and stops them from taking action that can help them and their families immeasurably: investing.
But investing need not be complicated. A succinct article gives pointers on how to get started, and on how to navigate the markets for the long haul.
After a piece of virtual art known as a nonfungible token — an NFT — sold at auction for $70 million recently, NFTs have suddenly became an asset that you can invest in. Our columnist prefers real dollars.
Short-term demand for oil and gas is rising, but if climate change is to be reversed, consumption of fossil fuels will have to diminish. This leaves investors in a tough spot.
For other perspectives on finance, take a deeper look at our report:
Additional attention in this area is a notion with bipartisan support, in an era that lacks much of that. In June, Representatives Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, and Abigail Spanberger, Democrat of Virginia, introduced what they called the Trust Act.
The bill would require their colleagues, spouses and dependent children to use a qualified blind trust, as Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Kelly are doing. With such vehicles, a third party would control individual stocks, if any, and some other investment assets and keep the beneficiary from knowing much about the contents or from trading on specialized knowledge of coming legislation. (Owning and trading common investments like mutual funds would be fine.)
“This is about making it easier for members of Congress to do their job,” Mr. Roy said at the time.
And let us not forget what I outlined in detail in a November column: They’ll all end up with more money in the end, on average, if they (or their stockbrokers) stop believing that they’re smart enough to beat the market. The studies on this are legion, and a particularly fun one showed how badly people in Congress did, on average, when they tried to outsmart the market between 2004 and 2008.
It is perhaps not surprising that those who would be elected officials would not be passive investors. The same enhanced sense of self that propels many of them to run for office may well make them think they have some kind of stock-picking superpower. They almost certainly don’t — and neither do the financial advisers who are charging them handsomely. Perhaps they’ll come to their senses eventually.
Others may own stock or trade it to blow off steam, as a form of gambling. If they can afford to lose the money, and are truly not using any inside information or in a position to influence the policies that affect the companies they bet on, then there is no real harm.
But do they wish to lose elections over it?
Certainly, stock trading wasn’t the only issue at play in Georgia. But in purple parts of the country or districts where upstarts in their own party would try to make a case of it, these newly elected officials could be vulnerable. If they avoid individual stocks for political reasons rather than more principled reasons, so be it. It’s all to the good.
With so many people awash in content streaming into their homes in the pandemic, brands are struggling to figure out a way to connect.
That has been particularly true in the marketing of expensive luxury goods — the type of items people like to be seen wearing and using. For the last year, the parties and the cultural and charitable events, where the wealthy can see and be seen, have not been happening.
“Why do I put on a $200,000 timepiece if I have a clock on my microwave and haven’t left my house in four months?” said Chris Olshan, global chief executive of the Luxury Marketing Council, an organization that promotes luxury brands. “What’s the value of a $10,000 Brioni suit when I’m not going out and no one is seeing it?”
He said brands were being forced to explain why a new product was worth their interest and their money. “It’s, ‘Hey, you can dive in this watch, and it has this button that if you press it we’ll come rescue you off of an island,’” he said. “It has to be more than another Swiss watch. It has to have something more to justify the value.”
dates to the 1870s, has been the leading maker of golf shoes since 1945, with a classic image akin to Audemars Piguet. But that image has been challenged with social media influencers promoting more athletic-looking golf shoes.
Max Homa, a younger professional who rose to social media prominence in the pandemic with his gently sarcastic Twitter takes on people’s golf swings.
“My brand is to take the seriousness out of golf but also play at a high level,” said Mr. Homa, 30, who won his second PGA Tour event in February at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles. “I want people to understand there are a lot of ways to go about it.”
The shoemaker announced on Thursday that it was also teaming with Todd Snyder, a men’s wear designer who favors camouflage and doesn’t golf but has a large social media following and can bring in different types of consumers.
“We’re contrasting Adam Scott, who’s out of central casting, and layering on someone like Max Homa,” said Ken LaRose, senior vice president of brand and consumer experience at FootJoy. “But we’re also looking for style influencers outside of the world of golf.”
cost more than $1,000, is looking at an affluent demographic of young mothers who live in cities and will be doing a lot of walking with their stroller.
“People want to see real people using our product,” said Schafer Stewart, head of marketing in the United States for Bugaboo. “We’re looking for those people who marry up with our aesthetic. We’re never paying for it.”
(Influencers, like Bruna Tenório, a Brazilian model who just had her first baby, do get free products.)
“We’ve been talking a lot about ways to market without spending one red cent,” Mr. Olshan said. “A lot of brands are panicked about doing anything. How do you engage inexpensively?”
Brands have also been helping one another, with Le Creuset, the French cookware company, promoting General Electric’s high-end appliance brand, Café, and vice versa.
“Look, if you’re buying pots and pans from me, you’re buying the oven from someone else,” Mr. Olshan said. “We’re seeing a lot of partnerships of noncompeting brands.”
In tough times, even luxury brands need to rethink their age-old strategies.
The sharp rise in bond yields is forcing traders to consider that they may be holding two irreconcilable ideas in their heads.
One is that the Federal Reserve has no real control over bond market interest rates. The other is that the Fed can keep the stock market aloft as long as it tries to control interest rates.
The resilience of share prices — the S&P 500 rose 5.8 percent in the first quarter — suggests that those two ideas can coexist. But if yields continue to rise, the impact on companies, consumers and homeowners and the appeal that fatter bond yields may have to investors could produce a reckoning for stocks.
“The bond market is at an inflection point that eventually is going to be recognized by the stock market,” said Komal Sri-Kumar, president of Sri-Kumar Global Strategies. “Over the last 30 years, the bond market has only gone one way, but a change is occurring now, and it’s likely to be an abrupt one.”
CRB index, which measures a basket of commodities, rose 52 percent in the 12 months through March. Home prices rose 6 percent last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
$1.9 trillion bill last month to help the economy after the ravages wrought by the pandemic, President Biden proposed spending $2 trillion more on infrastructure projects, albeit over several years.
That $4 trillion, give or take, would be “going into an economy saturated with $6 trillion of stimulus spending from the Trump administration,” Mr. Sri-Kumar said. So much spending is likely to push up inflation and bond yields, he said.
Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at Bank of America Global Research, does not expect such concerns to diminish soon.
Because of such factors as “new central bank mandates, excess fiscal stimulus,” as well as “less globalization, fading deflation from disruption, demographics, debt, we believe inflation rises in the 2020s and the 40-year bull market in bonds is over,” Mr. Hartnett said in a report.
Commodities and other hard assets should outperform in the long term, in his view, along with shares of smaller companies, value stocks and foreign stocks. The dollar, shares of big companies and bonds should do worse.
David Giroux, a portfolio manager and head of investment strategy at T. Rowe Price, said he is worried that the bill will come due for much of the government spending.
“There’s a high likelihood we will have higher corporate taxes next year,” Mr. Giroux said. “That will be a headwind for corporate earnings.”
That persuades him to avoid shares of economically sensitive companies for which “a lot of really good news is already priced in.”
He prefers “stocks with really good business models that have been left behind,” including technology giants that are off their highs, such as Amazon and Google, and companies like utilities. Other favorites include regional banks such as PNC and Huntington Bancshares.
Ms. Bitel at William Blair foresees long-term higher returns by big growth stocks. But she throws in an immense caveat: Because rising interest rates tend to force down valuations, especially on the most expensive segments of the market, there could be a sharp decline before the erstwhile Wall Street darlings excel again.
“Retail investors will be able to buy their favorite growth stocks at a 40 percent discount, but that leadership will resume,” she said, emphasizing that the 40 percent was a ballpark figure.
Ms. Bitel also suggested holding foreign stocks, in particular shares of Chinese health care companies and Japanese software companies.
Mr. Paolini recommends banks, energy and real estate, and said he is avoiding carmakers, industrial companies and home builders.
Considering the investment landscape more broadly, he said, “The outlook for the next one to three years is quite good.” Then he seemed to try to talk himself out of that belief.
“The idea that you can simply print money and everything is fine isn’t sustainable,” Mr. Paolini said. “At some point, we will realize too much has been done and the market is too high, and the situation will change quite fast. I don’t know what that level is or how far away we are from it.”
As concerns about climate change push the world economy toward a lower-carbon future, investing in oil may seem a risky bet. For the long term, that may be true.
Yet for the moment, at least, oil and gas prices appear likely to continue to rise as the economy recovers from the pandemic-driven shutdown of millions of businesses, big and small.
These countervailing trends — increasing demand now and falling demand at some point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future — create a dilemma for investors.
The good news is that an array of traditional mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are available to help them navigate these uncertain waters. Some funds focus on slices of the industry, such as extracting crude oil and gas from the ground or delivering refined products to consumers. Others focus on so-called integrated companies that do it all. Some spice their holdings with some exposure to wind, solar or other alternative energy sources.
International Energy Agency forecast that oil consumption was not likely to return to prepandemic levels in developed economies.
“World oil markets are rebalancing after the Covid-19 crisis spurred an unprecedented collapse in demand in 2020, but they may never return to ‘normal,’” the I.E.A. said in its “Oil 2021” report. “Rapid changes in behavior from the pandemic and a stronger drive by governments toward a low-carbon future have caused a dramatic downward shift in expectations for oil demand over the next six years.”
alternative energy funds. Many enable investors to zero in on discrete segments of the industry.
The biggest holdings of the Invesco WilderHill Clean Energy E.T.F. are producers of raw materials for solar cells and rechargeable batteries or builders and operators of large-scale solar projects. The $2.9 billion fund yields 0.49 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.7 percent.
The First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge Green Energy Index Fund focuses on applied green technology. Its biggest holdings are Tesla, the American maker of electric automobiles; NIO, a Chinese rival in that field; and Plug Power, which makes hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Also a $2.9 billion fund, it yields 0.24 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.6 percent.
The First Trust Global Wind Energy E.T.F., as its name suggests, targets wind turbine manufacturers and servicers, led by the Spanish-German joint venture Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and Vestas Wind Systems of Denmark, as well as operators such as Northland Power of Canada. This $423 million fund yields 0.92 percent and has an expense ratio of 0.61 percent.
“They hear Tax Day is moved to May 17, so a lot of people will go to their preparer on April 30,” Mr. Stewart said. “Unfortunately, the first-quarter estimated payment is late.”
The conference and other groups representing tax professionals had urged the government to postpone the estimated tax deadline as well. In congressional committee testimony in March, the I.R.S. commissioner, Charles P. Rettig, said the estimated tax deadline hadn’t been changed because it would, in effect, be giving “a break” on interest and penalties to wealthy people, who would invest the money instead of paying the government.
But people who file estimated taxes also include sole proprietors and workers in the gig economy with modest incomes, accountants say. Many people who lost jobs in the pandemic switched to work delivering meals and groceries ordered by mobile apps, said Melanie Lauridsen, senior manager for tax policy and advocacy at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
“That’s where the need is,” Ms. Lauridsen said.
The disconnect between the filing and estimated tax deadlines means tax preparers are pushed to get returns done by the traditional deadline anyway. “It’s putting a tremendous amount of stress on tax preparers,” said Rhonda Collins, director of tax content and government relations with the National Association of Tax Professionals.
In general, filers must estimate what they owe and round up to reduce the risk of underpaying. “It feels like it’s very much a guesstimate,” Ms. Collins said.
Should you incur a penalty when you file your tax return next year, you can request an abatement. Often, the I.R.S. is lenient with first-time errors, she said, especially when there are extenuating circumstances.
It’s also important to keep track of your income in 2021, tax professionals say. Many people had lower incomes than usual during 2020 because of the pandemic, and could see them rise in 2021 if the pandemic wanes as expected and the economy expands. If your income is turning out to be higher than expected, you may need to increase the amounts of your estimated payments later in the year.
Small-cap value stocks rank among the market’s riskiest fare.
But higher risk can bring bigger rewards, and in the first quarter, it did for three of the better-performing mutual funds. Each returned more than 20 percent by betting on small-cap value.
Value investors are betting on stocks that they think are trading below their fundamental worth. Often, companies end up classified this way because they operate in out-of-favor industries or have had setbacks.
Here are some of the choices that enabled three funds to prosper.
Kinetics Small-Cap Opportunities
The Kinetics Small-Cap Opportunities Fund toted up a first quarter return that would have been whopping for an entire year — 60.5 percent. In contrast, the S&P 500 index gave a total return of 6.2 percent for the quarter.
Peter Doyle, one of the fund’s co-managers, said his fund achieved its result thanks to an unusual holding: the Texas Pacific Land Corporation.
Permian Basin, one of the United States’ leading oil-and-gas-producing locales. The company earns royalties from others’ drilling on its land, and its stock shot up in the first quarter, returning nearly 120 percent.
Until this year, some mutual funds wouldn’t hold Texas Pacific because it was a publicly traded trust, not a corporation. It converted its legal structure in January, though Kinetics has owned it since about 2013.
Texas Pacific recently accounted for 43.9 percent of the fund’s assets. It was one of 36 holdings.
Kinetics’s enormous bet is “an outgrowth of our long time horizon and low turnover strategy,” Mr. Doyle said. “Maybe five of our names will be great investments. If you don’t turn over frequently, those five will become a bigger and bigger percentage of the portfolio.”
Mr. Doyle said patience is essential to how he and his co-managers run their fund. He said they view it as an advantage in a business characterized by shorter-term thinking.
Fund managers’ bonuses are often based on annual returns, so they focus on those, he said. “If you can get away from that, you can buy great companies at a discount.”
Hartford Small Cap Value Fund, sleuths for values, too. But unlike Mr. Doyle, he shies from the energy sector.
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He said that’s an outgrowth of his approach, which focuses on companies’ ability to produce free cash flow — that is, cash left over after a company funds its operations and maintains its assets. (Small-cap energy businesses can be speculative and require substantial investment before producing free cash.)
To spot cash spigots, Mr. Kammann ranks the 900 stocks in his investment universe and digs deeper into the better-ranking ones to understand why they’re cheap.
Poly, formerly known as Plantronics, a maker of headsets and other communications equipment.
The company had seen a planned merger collapse and a competitor, Jabro, swipe market share. The stock sank in the early days of the pandemic.
Mr. Kammann sensed a buying opportunity. “We thought the stay-at-home environment would be positive for headsets and that, post-Covid, there was going to continue to be some form of hybrid work. So we redoubled the position.”
The Hartford fund, whose A shares have a net expense ratio of 1.3 percent, returned 23.8 percent in the first quarter.
American Century Small-Cap Value Fund.
It’s one of several measures he considers as he’s screening companies. Others include balance-sheet strength and quality of management.
“We generate a score for each company, and that lets us compare it to other companies in its sector and across the portfolio,” he said. “We want to use data to remove some of the inherent biases we all have.”
Like Mr. Kammann’s approach, Mr. John’s has led him away from such traditional value-centric industries as energy and utilities.
Instead, he has lately found promise in Compass Diversified, which he calls a mini-conglomerate.
Compass, a publicly traded partnership, owns such diverse companies as the Sterno Group, producer of the canned fuel, and 5.11, a maker of clothing and gear for law enforcement and for the outdoors.
Compass’s managers are “incredible allocators of capital,” Mr. John said. “They invest in these businesses and help them grow, and if there’s an opportunity to sell them, they’ll do that.”
In 2019, for example, Compass sold off Clean Earth, an environmental remediation company, and Manitoba Harvest, a producer of hemp foods .
Penske Automotive, calling it “one of our core holdings for quite some time.”
Penske is known for its network of car dealerships, but its business is burlier than that, he said. Commercial trucks, via sales and leasing, have recently powered the company’s growth.
“Within the commercial truck space, 70 percent of gross profit comes from the servicing,” he said. “A sale is really just an entree to providing service over time.”
The company’s chairman, Roger S. Penske, makes shareholder interests a priority because he’s a substantial one himself, Mr. John said. “Penske owns 40-percent-plus of the company.”
The American Century Fund, whose investor shares have an expense ratio of 1.25 percent, returned 24.7 percent in the first quarter.
My husband and I are currently planning a trip to Ireland, Portugal and Italy for August and September. We are only reserving hotels with free cancellation policies and our airline tickets can be changed to a future date. Knowing that much of Europe is closed right now to United States citizens because of the virus, is there much hope that our plans will materialize, or are we wasting our time? What should I watch for? Kathy
Although there are some signs of life — Iceland is newly open to fully vaccinated travelers and Greece will reopen to vaccinated or virus-tested visitors next month — Europe, where case counts are rising in some parts and the vaccine rollout has been disappointingly slow, is still largely closed to Americans. Ireland is open to United States citizens with a combination of testing and quarantine, but Portugal and Italy, like most of the continent, for now remain off limits. Italy, in particular, was hard-hit by the virus in the early months of the pandemic; and in March, the spread of a contagious variant from Britain pushed the country back into another lockdown.
“This environment is so challenging because there is significant pressure for countries that rely on tourism to rebound, which counterbalances much slower vaccination rates in Europe,” said Fallon Lieberman, who runs the leisure-travel division of Skylark, a travel agency affiliated with the Virtuoso travel network. “So unfortunately, those two forces are at odds with one another.”
Your question, like many related to the pandemic, involves various degrees of risk. First, let’s look at the concrete risk: If you book now for late summer, how likely are you to lose money?
flexibility with seats beyond Basic Economy, and now, especially, it’s wise to book tickets that can be easily changed. Delta Air Lines has eliminated change and cancellation fees for all flights originating from North America, and Delta eCredits set to expire this year — including for new tickets purchased this year — can be used for travel through 2022. United Airlines has also permanently eliminated change fees.
Unlike a plane ticket, which can always be changed (either for free or for a fee), a nonrefundable hotel reservation is generally exactly that: a use-it-or-lose-it investment.
The good news: “Hotels in Europe — and around the world, really — are being quite flexible,” said Ms. Lieberman, who has helped hundreds of Skylark clients cancel and rebook last year’s felled Europe trips, many to this summer and beyond. “While this is a very challenging time, many suppliers are providing maximum flexibility.”
Cancellation policies vary by property, but many of the multinational companies have made it easy, and relatively risk-free, to plan ahead. Companies like Hilton and Four Seasons are allowing cancellations up to 24 hours before check-in. Hyatt is allowing fee-free cancellations up to 24 hours in advance for arrivals through July 31 (and it’s always possible that date will be extended). For points nerds, most of the big hotel chains allow most award nights to be canceled scot-free, with the points redeposited, within a day or two of the expected check-in.
More complicated than physical refunds, though, is the larger, metaphysical risk: How likely is it that this trip is actually going to happen? What forces can help predict whether the Europe trips we book today will actually materialize in August and September?
France and Italy have just been locked down again, interest in Europe is rising, aided, no doubt, by signs that President Biden could lift the ban on European visitors to the United States as early as next month, news of the possibility of European health passes, rumors that Spain and Britain could both restart international tourism in mid May, and more.
At Hopper, a travel-booking app that analyzes and predicts flight and hotel prices, bookings for Europe-bound summer 2021 travel surged 68 percent week-over-week between the last week of February and the first week of March. Searches for round-trip flights to Europe departing this summer increased a whopping 86 percent in the 30 days following February 22.
According to TripAdvisor data of hotel searches from the United States for this summer, five of the 10 most-searched European destinations were in Greece, but Rome — and Paris, for that matter — were also on the list.
To make sense of how traveler zeal will jibe with the realities of the pandemic, analysts and travel industry experts are eyeing several factors, including flight schedules.
According to PlaneStats, the aviation-data portal from Oliver Wyman, an international consulting firm, the number of Europe-bound flights scheduled to depart the United States this month is around 26 percent of the number that departed the United States for Europe in April 2019. Next month compared to May 2019, that figure is looking even higher so far: 35 percent. (April and May 2020, by contrast, both clocked in at 5 percent.) That’s lower than normal, but it’s still a drastic uptick from any other point during the pandemic. Although many will be connecting flights (Americans can still transit through Europe) or culminate in destinations like London (Americans can visit England, though multiple testing and quarantines are required), schedules still remain a key indicator.
Khalid Usman, a partner and aviation expert at Oliver Wyman. “What airlines don’t want to do is put out schedules where people are not going to be traveling.”
Pandemic Navigator, which simulates day-by-day immunity growth. “That’s good news for the domestic market, but in the context of international travel, we do have to realize that it’s not just about one country — it’s a country at the other end as well.”
Factoring in the spotty vaccine rollout across the pond, Mr. Usman said it’s reasonable to assume that Europe’s herd immunity will lag several months behind the United States. Over the next several months, he added, European countries will follow in Iceland’s footsteps and open individually, complete with their own regulations about vaccinations, testing and quarantines. To spur travel across the continent this summer, the European Union is considering adopting a vaccine certificate for its own residents and their families.
“It’s not going to be a binary open-or-shut,” Mr. Usman said. “Countries are going to start getting more selective about who they’re going to start letting in.”
Italy’s numbers — plus new lockdowns and growing Covid variants — seem to be stifling optimism; Hopper flight searches from the United States to Italy have remained relatively flat.
For now, Ms. Lieberman, of Skylark, has adopted a “beyond the boot” mind-set: “Our theory is that if you’re willing to go beyond the boot — meaning, Italy — there will be fabulous, desirable summer destinations for you to take advantage of.”
Portugal surged in January but has recently eased lockdown measures as infection rates have slowed. The country is now aiming for a 70 percent vaccination rate this summer.
American interest in Portugal is spiking in response. In the first week of March, following an announcement that Portugal could welcome tourists from Britain as soon as mid-May, Hopper searches on flights from the United States to Lisbon rose 63 percent. (That’s not far behind Athens, for which travel searches shot up 75 percent in the same time period.)
will next month start nonstop service between Boston and Reykjavik — and resume its Iceland service from New York City and Minneapolis.
“Unless demand spikes rapidly enough to outpace the increase in supply, flash sales can be found as airlines attempt to entice travelers to return amid piecemeal easings of travel restrictions,” said Mr. Damodaran. Icelandair, for example, is running sales on flights and packages through April 13.
And with prices for summer flights to Europe still relatively low in general — down by more than 10 percent from 2019, according to Hopper — experts see little downside in penciling in a trip.
“If you’re willing to take some risk, plan early and lock in your preferred accommodations and ideal itineraries,” Ms. Lieberman said. “But of course we caution you to be prepared to have to move deposits and dates if it comes to that.”
Mr. Green doesn’t choose sides. He simply reports on the views of investors who say the secret to success is buying good companies at relatively inexpensive prices, as well as on others who say it is OK to pay a premium if a company has substantial growth prospects.
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But he does hammer home certain lessons he heard from the people he interviewed:
Don’t get in your own way. Don’t be emotional about your investments, and don’t chase fads.
If you don’t understand what a company does or don’t understand an investment opportunity you are being offered, stay away.
Keep enough cash on hand so you can weather the inevitable downturns without being forced to sell your holdings at a loss. And, he writes: “To achieve resilience, it’s imperative to reduce or eliminate debt, avoid leverage and beware of excessive expenses.”
Throughout the book he underscores the central premise that originality is overrated when it comes to investing. You don’t need to come up with your own unique approach. You can simply copy ideas that have worked for others.
“The overarching purpose of this book,” Mr. Green writes, “is to share what I would call ideas worth cloning.”
Throughout, Mr. Green points out lessons that can also be applied to your personal life.
“Both in markets and life, the goal isn’t to embrace risk or eschew it, but to bear it intelligently while never forgetting the possibility of an unpleasant outcome,” he writes. He adds later on: “Nothing is more essential than our capacity to survive the most difficult times not only financially but emotionally.”
As much as I like the book, there are a few things I wish Mr. Green had done differently.
Yes, these are successful men — and just about everyone mentioned in the book is male — but his appreciation of them can sometimes veer into fawning. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management is described as a “philosopher-king of finance,” and Joel Greenblatt, “a giant among giants,” has “a beguiling manner and warm smile.”
Making your bond-fund portfolio less risky requires doing something that can feel like living dangerously: investing abroad.
If you’re like most people, you may have put too much of your money in bond funds invested in your home market and so failed to spread your bets around.
“People are used to thinking about diversification in their stock portfolio, and they understand how that works to control the risk,” said Rob Waldner, chief strategist for fixed income at Invesco. “You need to do that with your fixed income, too.”
Bond diversification matters all the more when traditional income producers like U.S. Treasuries are paying measly rates, he said.
1.7 percent in early April, compared with less than 1 percent in January. But rates are likely to remain relatively low by long-term standards.
Bonds come in a variety as rich — and sometimes baffling — as the screw-and-fastener aisle at Home Depot.
A well-diversified portfolio might include mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that buy bonds issued by the United States and foreign governments, and large U.S. and foreign companies, as well as ones backed by mortgages, auto loans or credit-card receivables in the United States. (Pools of these financial assets are securitized, and rights to payments from the pools become mortgage-backed and asset-backed bonds.)
“Home bias” is the financial term for people’s tendency to over-invest in their home market and shy from other places. Investment experts say it’s pervasive.
“It’s something we observe in every country,” said Roger Aliaga-Diaz, global head of portfolio construction at Vanguard.
Vanguard’s research has found that international bonds reduce portfolios’ ups and downs without hurting the total return. Internationally diversifying can provide access to securities from more than 40 countries.
“This broad exposure is important, as the factors that drive international bond prices are relatively uncorrelated to those that drive prices in the U.S.,” the report said. Lately, for example, South Korea’s 10-year government bond is yielding 2 percent, while Mexico’s is yielding nearly 7 percent.
The international bond slice of Vanguard’s target-date funds is invested in the Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund, which owns mainly developed-world bonds. Like many international bond funds, it uses hedging to protect its shareholders against the return volatility that currency fluctuations can cause.
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Jean Boivin, head of the BlackRock Investment Institute, said his outfit’s research suggests that investors may want to be bold in their foreign bond forays and look beyond developed markets.
“You need to think about emerging-market bonds and, in particular, Asia ex-Japan,” he said.
In the past, investors could view the U.S. bond market as a proxy for the world, partly because U.S. companies often had sprawling international operations, Mr. Boivin said. But there is enormous global diversity today. Foreign markets, especially China, have risen so much that this approach doesn’t work as well.
Total Return Fund might provide a starting point for considering reasonable ranges. It recently allocated about 8.6 percent of its assets to emerging markets.
The Fidelity Total Bond Fund, another broad offering, lately had a 16 percent stake in higher-yielding, riskier kinds of domestic and foreign debt.
“Historically, we’ve owned from 8 to 18 percent in the higher-yielding sectors,” said Celso Munoz, one of the fund’s managers. “It’s appropriate for most people to have exposure to the broader fixed-income world, which would include high yield, emerging markets and bank loans.”
People may tend to shun international bonds partly because stocks overshadow bonds in the popular media, said Kathy Jones, chief fixed-income strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.
“Every day somebody is talking about the S&P 500 or the Dow,” she said. “People don’t talk like that about Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index,” a leading bond index, and relatively few people plunge even deeper into the fixed-income universe.
To decide how you might better diversify your bond funds, it helps to reflect on why you own them, said Tad Rivelle, chief investment officer for fixed income at TCW.
“The existential question is do you think of fixed income as a safe asset that enables you to take risk elsewhere,” he said, “or do you expect your bonds to pull their own weight, and so you’re OK with them going down in a market panic?”
MetWest Total Return Bond Fund might work for the first group, and its MetWest Flexible Income Fund for the second.
A puzzle for all bond-fund investors is how the end of the Covid-19 pandemic might affect interest rates.
Rates usually rise when the economy grows, as it’s expected to do as the world emerges from the pandemic. As that happens, inflation may rise, which could stifle a long bull market in bonds. Bond prices rise as interest rates fall.
Yet renewed inflation has been erroneously predicted before, and Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, has made clear that the bank isn’t rushing to raise the short-term rates it controls.
For investors who are counting on their bond funds for income, continued low rates could create a temptation to court risk.
A more patient approach is prudent, said Mary Ellen Stanek, chief investment officer for Baird Advisors, which oversees the Baird Funds.
“You don’t own bonds for excitement and drama,” she said. “You own them for predictability and lower volatility.”
Ms. Jones of Schwab warned, too, against seeking excessive risk. She suggested investors instead rethink how they take cash from their portfolios.
“In a year when your stocks are up 20 percent and your bonds are up 2, you may want to pull out some of those capital gains and put them in your cash bucket,” she said. “Say you’re looking to generate 6 percent overall, and you’ve made 20 percent in stocks. If you have excess above your plan, you can look at that as potential income.”
No matter what path investors choose, they should always pay close attention to the costs of funds and E.T.F.s, said Jennifer Ellison, a financial adviser at Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough in San Francisco.
“Costs are really important, especially with yields where they are,” since those costs will eat up much of that scant yield, she said. “If you’re a retail investor and you’re buying a loaded bond fund, you’re giving all your yield away up front.”