Using bonds for retirement will hurt your retirement income

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Using bond for retirement income has often been standard investing advice for the last 50 years—but we think it’s bad advice.

As some investors near retirement, their advisors recommend switching to bonds and other fixed-income investments for their retirement investments instead of holding stocks or ETFs.

To some extent, this is an understandable retirement investing strategy, since bonds can provide steady income and a guarantee to repay their principal at maturity.


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Bonds will lower the long-term returns that are key to successful retirement investing

Unfortunately, using bonds for retirement may not be the best strategy. Bond prices will likely fall over the next few years because interest rates are likely to rise. Bond prices and interest rates are inversely linked. When interest rates go up, bond prices go down, when interest rates go down, bond prices for up.

Bonds have been in a period of rising prices (a bull market) more or less since 1981. That year, long-term interest rates reached an historic turning point when long-term U.S. Treasury bond yields peaked near 15%. Ever since, interest rates have gone through wide fluctuations, but they have essentially headed downward.

Today, interest rates just don’t have that much further to fall. But under certain conditions, interest rates could go substantially higher. Remember, as mentioned, when interest rates go up, bond prices drop.

Even so, brokers continue to sell bonds to their clients. That’s partly because most of today’s brokers had not yet entered the investment business when the bull market in bonds began in 1980. All they know is that bonds do tend to reduce the volatility of your portfolio, since they tend to rise when stock prices fall. Of course, bonds also generate more commission fees and income for the broker, compared to stocks, especially if you buy them via bond funds and other investment products.

That’s why we continue to recommend that you invest only a small part of your portfolio—if any—in bonds and fixed-income investments. Instead, you should aim for a diversified portfolio of well-established companies with long histories of dividends, or ETFs that hold these stocks. We recommend a number of stocks and ETFs appropriate for retirement investing in our Canadian Wealth Advisor newsletter.

We recommend this retirement investing strategy because equities are bound to be more profitable than bonds for retirement over long periods. That’s because equity returns are related to business profits, while returns on fixed-return investments are related to business interest costs.

Bonds and other fixed-return investments can add stability

Returns on your stocks are sure to be more volatile than what you earn on fixed-return investments (that includes short-term bonds). That’s because returns on stocks are related to the part of gross profit that’s left over after a company pays its interest costs.

Though fixed-return investments are less profitable than equity investments, they can help stabilize your portfolio’s value. They serve as reserves you can use to buy more stocks when prices are down. For that matter, when stock prices are down, you can use your reserves for personal spending to avoid having to sell at a low.

In the end, the right split between equities and fixed-return investments depends on your financial circumstances and your temperament. If you are older and planning on using bonds for retirement as an investing strategy, you may want to hold some fixed-income investments. But with interest rates at current low levels, stick with Canadian T-bills with maturities of around three months, or with GICs.

Retirement planning and bonds

As for the return you expect from your retirement investing, it’s best to aim low. If you choose to use bonds for retirement, assume you will earn the current yield; don’t assume you can make money trading in bonds.

Over long periods, the total return on a well-diversified portfolio of high-quality stocks runs to as much as 10%, or around 7.5% after inflation. However, aim lower in your retirement planning—6.5% a year, say—to allow for unforeseeable problems and setbacks.

Above all, it’s important to remember that while finances are important, the happiest retirees are those who stay busy. You can do that with travel, golf or sailing. But volunteering, or working part-time at something you enjoy, can work just as well.

One thing we encourage all investors to do is perform a detailed study of how you spend your money now. Then, you analyze your findings to see what personal expenses you can cut or eliminate. This too can have fringe benefits, especially if it helps you break unhealthy habits. You may be surprised at how much you’re spending and how much more you could be saving for retirement.

Are you using bonds for retirement in your planning models? Has this article changed your mind? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.

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