Archive for Bonds

Fourth Quarter Investment Commentary

Looking Back: 2017 Market Review

The fourth quarter capped yet another stellar year for U.S. stocks. Larger-cap U.S. stocks (Vanguard 500 Index) gained 6.6% for the quarter and ended the year with a 21.7% total return. This was the ninth consecutive year of positive returns for the index. The market’s 1.1% gain in December crowned 2017 as the first year ever that stocks rose in each and every month. The broad driver of the market’s rise for the year was rebounding corporate earnings growth, supported by solid economic data, synchronized global growth, still-quiescent inflation, and accommodative monetary policy. U.S. stocks got an additional catalyst in the fourth quarter with the passage of the Republican tax plan, presumably reflecting investors’ optimism about its potential to further boost corporate after-tax profits, at least over the shorter term.

Foreign stock returns were even stronger, with developed international markets gaining 26.4% (Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF) and emerging markets up 31.5% for the year (Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF). In the fourth quarter, however, these markets couldn’t match the S&P 500, gaining 4%–6%.

Moving on to bonds, the core bond index fund (Vanguard Total Bond Market Index) gained 3.5% in 2017. This return was close to the index’s yield at the start of the year, as intermediate-term interest rates changed little during the year with the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield ending at 2.4%. Although the Federal Reserve raised short-term rates three times (75 basis points total), yields at the long end of the Treasury curve declined and the yield curve flattened. Corporate bonds across all credit qualities and maturities had positive returns. High-yield bonds gained 7.5% (ICE BofA Merrill Lynch U.S. High Yield Cash Pay Index) and floating-rate loans rose 4.1% for the year (S&P/LSTA Leveraged Loan Index). Investment-grade municipal bonds (Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt) rebounded from a flat 2016, returning 4.5%.

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Investment Outlook – April 2017

The current equity market is the thirteenth bull market for the S&P 500 since 1928. At 96 months, it is the second longest bull run over the period: the longest, from 1990 to 2000, lasted 120 months and appreciated about 425%. The current market has appreciated “only” about 250%. The bull market in bonds began in the early 1980s when ten year Treasuries were yielding close to 16% and T-Bills were paying over 20%; currently, ten year Treasuries are yielding about 2.5% and 90 day T-Bills are paying .75%. The lowest bond yield in two and a half generations was breached earlier this year at 1.4%. Are we at an inflection point? Have interest rates finally begun their long anticipated reversal? And if interest rates are beginning to rise, can the equity market possibly survive?

There is a theory, recently expressed in the Wall Street Journal, that low U.S. Treasury yields have provided the support for current valuations in the stock market. At the risk of oversimplification, the argument runs something like this: as long as bond yields are lower than stock dividend yields, income sensitive investors will continue to pour money into the stock market, thereby supporting prices. The dividend yield on the S&P 500 index, until very recently, exceeded the yield on ten year Treasuries. With some of the more recent increases in long term interest rates and the post-Trump run-up in stock prices, this premium has evaporated. According to the argument, the disappearance of the stock yield premium knocks the support out from under the market. There is substantial validity for this argument, particularly during periods of low earnings per share growth (not unlike the experience of the last eight years). But when there is some expectation of growth, or increased awareness of risk, the simple comparison of dividend yields to bond yields loses meaning. The math can get very complicated and highly dependent on estimates and assumptions, but the basic framework for evaluating stock dividend yields, as well as price to earnings ratios (P/Es), relies on three variables: growth, the risk free level of interest rates and risk. Growth is the expected growth rate of earnings or dividends (dividends tend to follow earnings); the risk free rate is usually the interest on U.S. Treasury Bills or Bonds; and risk appears as points added to the risk free rate as compensation for the uncertainty of earnings and dividends. Dividend yields tend to be elevated during periods of very low growth expectations. In such an environment, an increase in interest rates, and/or an increase in perceived risk, elevates the required rate of return on dividends and thereby raises the dividend yield by reducing the price of stocks. However, even in an environment of increasing required rates of return, if growth expectations rise more rapidly than rates, yields will fall and P/Es will rise with increasing prices.

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Heritage Institutional- January 2017 Retirement Report

Each month, our Heritage Institutional team publishes the Retirement Report, which provides timely news and updates for plan sponsors and fiduciaries of defined contribution plans.  This month’s topics include:

  • To Bond or Not to Bond?
  • Complying with ERISA 404(c)

To read the full report, click here.