March 09, 2023
Many investors have increased their holding of cash or cash equivalents in recent years to hedge against interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve. While a tilt toward cash or very short-term securities worked well in 2022, adding more duration exposure could prove valuable going forward. With yields higher today than at any time since the 2008 global financial crisis, bonds now have better expected returns and can cushion against further price declines.
The cash-heavy strategy has worked during this period, because cash and very short-duration securities are much less sensitive to interest rate increases. As a rule, when interest rates rise, bond prices fall—but less so at the short end than for longer-duration securities.
For example, the Bloomberg U.S. 3-Month Treasury Bellwether Index, a benchmark for Treasury bills with a maturity of less than three months, returned 1.51% in 2022. That compared with a return of –13% for the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index, which represents the U.S. investment-grade market.
Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index.
But continuing to overweight cash may prove to be another example of how what worked in the past may not work so well again in the future.
With an economic downturn widely expected by markets in later 2023 or early 2024, it may be a good time to reassess how your fixed income portfolio is invested across maturities.
Trying to maximize yield today by overweighting cash or very short-term bonds in the inverted yield-curve environment has trade-offs. Moving out further on the yield curve may let you take advantage of higher yields and better defend your portfolio from weakness in equities.
Of course, the best practice is to align the duration of your portfolio allocation with your approximate timeline, especially if money will be needed relatively soon. For needs within a year or so, cash remains an appropriate option, while short-term bond funds can work well for needs within the next few years.
With yields higher than they were a year ago, bonds can absorb some pain if rates continue to rise—without leaving investors with large losses.
For example, the Bloomberg U.S. Treasury 3–10 Year Bond Index, an intermediate-term measure, had a duration of 5.1 years as of January 31, 2023. That means the index could see a 5% price decline if interest rates suddenly rose by 1 percentage point across the board.
However, the 1-percentage-point increase would mean higher income, which would counter the index’s price decline over the next year and result in a total expected return of –0.51%.
Conversely, if rates were to fall by 1 percentage point, an intermediate-duration portfolio such as the 3–10 Year Index would be poised to see greater capital gains than a portfolio with a shorter duration such as the 1–3 Year Index. The estimated one-year return would be 7.75% versus 5.14%, or about 50% higher than if rates were unchanged.
These hypothetical estimates are based on Treasury rates and do not include the potential impact of credit spread widening or the benefit of higher yields in corporate bonds.
Notes: The Bloomberg U.S. Treasury 1–3 Year Index had a duration of 1.86 years and a yield to maturity of 4.28%. The Bloomberg U.S. Treasury 3–10 Year Index had a duration of 5.17 years and a yield to maturity of 3.62%. The Bloomberg U.S. Long Treasury Index had a duration of 16.42 years and a yield to maturity of 3.72%. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The performance of an index is not an exact representation of any particular investment, as you cannot invest directly in an index. Scenario assumes any interest rate changes occur at the beginning of the period and before any reinvestment of dividends. Scenario does not take convexity into account. This illustration is hypothetical and does not represent the return on any particular investment, and the rate is not guaranteed.
Sources: Vanguard calculations, using Bloomberg data as of January 31, 2023.
So, what is the matter with staying short?
If interest rates, especially short-term ones, fall, then investors in cash will be faced with the risk of reinvesting at a lower rate, reducing the yield component of future total returns.
In addition, investors whose portfolios are short in duration would miss out on greater capital gains in a scenario where longer-duration bonds also experience yield declines. What’s more, prices on longer-term bonds often rise when equity markets drop as investors seek safety. Therefore, less duration exposure deprives a portfolio of the equity hedge that longer-term bonds can provide in volatile markets.
If your view is that further rate hikes not currently expected by the market may still occur in the near future, short-term bonds may provide a better shield against this risk and still offer highly attractive yields today.
But we believe that what makes sense for most investors is to consider diversifying your fixed income allocation across the maturity spectrum, potentially by moving away from cash-like exposure and toward short-term bond strategies or, for longer investment horizons, to a broad, high-quality strategy like core or core plus.
Here is a sampling of Vanguard bond funds and ETFs across a range of maturities:
For more information about Vanguard funds and ETFs, visit vanguard.com to obtain a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus. Investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other important information are contained in the prospectus; read and consider it carefully before investing.
Vanguard ETF Shares are not redeemable with the issuing Fund other than in very large aggregations worth millions of dollars. Instead, investors must buy and sell Vanguard ETF Shares in the secondary market and hold those shares in a brokerage account. In doing so, the investor may incur brokerage commissions and may pay more than net asset value when buying and receive less than net asset value when selling.
All investing is subject to risk, including possible loss of principal. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss. There is no guarantee that any particular asset allocation or mix of funds will meet your investment objectives or provide you with a given level of income.
Bond funds are subject to the risk that an issuer will fail to make payments on time, and that bond prices will decline because of rising interest rates or negative perceptions of an issuer's ability to make payments.
U.S. government backing of Treasury or agency securities applies only to the underlying securities and does not prevent share-price fluctuations. Unlike stocks and bonds, U.S. Treasury bills are guaranteed as to the timely payment of principal and interest.
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John Croke, CFA
Samuel Martinez, CFA