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In a passive investment portfolio one usually has some sort of mix between stocks and bonds which are supposed to offset losses from each other. I've read that because of low interest rates persisting over the past few years buying corporate or government bonds is no longer a good idea. I'm trying to build a passive portfolio now and I'm wondering if what I read is true and if so what would be a good replacement for bonds in a passive portfolio?

Update: I made a mistake here. I actually meant government bonds, not corporate, as corporate will have positive correlation with stocks and the reason for including bonds in the portfolio is to offset stocks' volatility. As the interest rate is almost 0% the real return is 0% or less. So is there anything that can act as anchor in the portfolio without government bonds' current limitations?

  • Bonds are great for passive investing - you know your yield, you get all your money back (unless they default), and you don't have to worry about the price falling and rising every day. Hopefully someone will write up a better answer for you but if not I'll try to get to it next week. – Ross Dec 18 '15 at 19:51
  • Have you looked into TIPS? There are inflation-indexed bonds that may work to some degree and depending on your investment accounts municipal bonds may also be something to consider here. – JB King Dec 19 '15 at 0:06
  • Can you elaborate on why you think these might be a good idea? – Johnny Dec 19 '15 at 0:32
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Bonds still definitely have a place in many passive portfolios. While it is true that interest rates have been unusually low, yields on reasonable passive bond exposures are still around 2-4%. This is significantly better than both recent past inflation and expected inflation both of which are near zero.

This is reasonable if not great return, but Bonds continue to have other nice properties like relatively low risk and diversification of stock portfolios (the "offset[ing] losses" you mention in the OP). So to say that bonds are "no longer a good idea" is certainly not correct. One could say bonds may no longer be a good idea for some people that have a particularly high risk tolerance and very high return requirements. However, to some extent, that has always been true.

It is worth remembering also that there is some compelling evidence that global growth is starting to broadly slow down and many people believe that future stock returns and, in general, returns on all investments will be lower. This is much much harder to estimate than bond returns though. Depending on who you believe, bond returns may actually look relatively better than the have in the past.

Edit in response to comment: Corporate bond correlation with stocks is positive but generally not very strong (except for high-yield junk bonds) so while they don't offset stock volatility (negative correlation) they do help diversify a stock portfolio. Government bonds have essentially zero correlation so they don't really offset volatility as much as just not add any. Negative correlation assets are generally called insurance and you tend to have to pay for them. So there is no free lunch here. Assets that reduce risk cost money, assets that add little risk give less return and assets that are more risky tend to give more return in the long run but you can feel the pain. The mix that is right for you depends on a lot of things, but for many people that mix involves some corporate and government bonds.

  • Thanks for a comprehensive answer. Reading it, I realized my question was wrong. What I should have asked about is government bonds. Corporate bonds have some correlation with stocks and therefore cannot be used to offset stocks' volatility. So government bonds are what I should be investing in. My understanding is that they currently offer zero or negative returns. Is there an alternative to government bonds? – Johnny Dec 18 '15 at 23:48
  • Other common passive instruments are foreign stocks and bonds and REITs but they too all fall somewhere on that risk vs reward curve. – rhaskett Dec 19 '15 at 8:25
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The fact that some asset (in this case corporate bonds) has positive correlation with some other asset (equity) doesn't mean buying both isn't a good idea. Unless they are perfectly correlated, the best risk/reward portfolio will include both assets as they will sometimes move in opposite directions and cancel out each other's risk. So yes, you should buy corporate bonds.

Short-term government bonds are essentially the risk-free asset. You will want to include that as well if you are very risk averse, otherwise you may not. Long-term government bonds may be default free but they are not risk free. They will make money if interest rates fall and lose if interest rates rise. Because of that risk, they also pay you a premium, albeit a small one, and should be in your portfolio.

So yes, a passive portfolio (actually, any reasonable portfolio) should strive to reduce risk by diversifying into all assets that it reasonably can. If you believe the capital asset pricing model, the weights on portfolio assets should correspond to market weights (more money in bonds than stocks). Otherwise you will need to choose your weights. Unfortunately we are not able to estimate the true expected returns of risky assets, so no one can really agree on what the true optimal weights should be. That's why there are so many rules of thumb and so much disagreement on the subject. But there is little or no disagreement on the fact that the optimal portfolio does include risky bonds including long-term treasuries.

To answer your follow-up question about an "anchor," if by that you mean a risk-free asset then the answer is not really. Any risk-free asset is paying approximately zero right now. Some assets with very little risk will earn a very little bit more than short term treasuries, but overall there's nowhere to hide--the time value of money is extremely low at short horizons. You want expected returns, you must take risk.

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No. That's the point of a passive strategy: you maintain a more or less constant mix of assets and don't try to figure out what's going to move where.

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I have had similar thoughts regarding alternative diversifiers for the reasons you mention, but for the most part they don't exist. Gold is often mentioned, but outside of 1972-1974 when the US went off the gold standard, it hasn't been very effective in the diversification role. Cash can help a little, but it also fails to effectively protect you in a bear market, as measured by portfolio drawdowns as well as std dev, relative to gov't bonds. There are alternative assets, reverse ETFs, etc which can fulfill a specific short term defensive role in your portfolio, but which can be very dangerous and are especially poor as a long term solution; while some people claim to use them for effective results, I haven't seen anything verifiable. I don't recommend them.

Gov't bonds really do have a negative correlation to equities during periods in which equities underperform (timing is often slightly delayed), and that makes them more valuable than any other asset class as a diversifier. If you are concerned about rate increases, avoid LT gov't bond funds. Intermediate will work, but will take a few hits... short term bonds will be the safest. Personally I'm in Intermediates (30%), and willing to take the modest hit, in exchange for the overall portfolio protection they provide against an equity downturn. If the hit concerns you, Tips may provide some long term help, assuming inflation rises along with rates to some degree. I personally think Tips give up too much return when equity performance is strong, but it's a modest concern - Tips may suit you better than any other option. In general, I'm less concerned with a single asset class than with the long term performance of my total portfolio.

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