Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Understanding Your Bond Fund’s Duration

Share

Interest Rates

For most of the past 30 years bonds and bond mutual funds have had the proverbial wind in their sails. Interest rates have steadily headed downwards. Bond prices and interest rates have an inverse relationship.

Last week, however, the Fed increased interest rates by 25 basis points (0.25%). They also indicated that they would continue to raise rates this year as, in their view, our economy has reached a new phase. This is part of an overall tightening of the money supply to keep the economy from overheating, including an effort to keep inflation in check.

Many investors may be wondering what this means for their bond mutual funds ETFs. A key number that all holders of bond funds and ETFs must know and understand is the fund’s duration.

What is duration? 

Bond mutual funds and ETFs are a portfolio of individual bonds.

According to Morningstar, “Duration is a time measure of a bond’s interest-rate sensitivity, based on the weighted average of the time periods over which a bond’s cash flows accrue to the bondholder.” A bond’s cash flows include the value received at maturity, generally $1,000 per bond, and the periodic interest payments received by the holder of the bond. A bond’s duration is expressed in years and is generally shorter than its maturity.

All things being equal, a bond with a longer time to maturity will have a higher duration meaning its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates. Likewise, the higher the bond’s coupon rate (the stated interest rate paid by the bond) the lower the bond’s duration. Bonds with a shorter time to maturity and a higher coupon rate will have a lower duration and their price will be less sensitive to changes in interest rates.

The duration of a bond fund or ETF can be found on the fund’s fact sheet usually posted on the fund company’s site, or the portfolio tab on the fund’s listing on Morningstar.com.

What does bond fund duration tell us? 

The largest bond fund, Vanguard Total Bond Market Index (ticker VBMFX), has an effective duration of 6.05 years according to Morningstar. This tells us that if interest rates rise by 1% the value of the underlying bonds held by the fund would likely decline by around 6.05%.  Note this number is an approximation and bond prices are impacted by factors other than changes in interest rates. This fund roughly tracks the aggregate U.S. bond market.

By comparison Vanguard Long-Term Investment Grade (ticker VWESX) has longer duration of 13.31 years and would see a greater impact from rising interest rates.

The Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index ETF (ticker BSV) has a duration of 2.76 years.

The actively managed Double Line Total Return Bond Fund I (ticker DBLTX), managed by Jeffrey Gundlach who many call the “bond king,” has a duration of 3.98 years.

What should I do now?

As mentioned above, duration is a good indicator of the potential impact of a change in interest rates upon the value of your bond fund, but other factors also come into play. In 2008, many bond funds saw outsized losses and investors moved their money into Treasuries as a safe haven during the financial meltdown.

Many high-quality bond funds suffered major losses that year based only upon this flight to quality by investors.

Longer term the total return of a bond fund or ETF is driven by income payments as well as the direction of interest rates. Lower coupon bonds will be replaced by bonds with higher coupon rates over time.

Bonds are traded on the secondary market and prices are a function of supply and demand much like with stocks.

Bond mutual funds and ETFs offer the advantage of a managed portfolio.  On the flip side unlike an individual bond, bond mutual funds and ETFs never mature.

Is it time to get out of bond funds?  The point of this article is not to advocate that you do anything differently, but rather that you understand the potential duration risk in any bond mutual funds or ETFs that you currently hold or may be considering for purchase.

Bond funds and ETFs still have a place in diversified portfolios, but for many investors the characteristics of the fixed income portion of their portfolios may need an adjustment. This might mean shortening up on bond fund duration and looking at other, non-core types of bond funds.

The landscape of the financial markets is continually evolving and interest rates are a part of this evolution. As investors we need to understand the potential implications on our portfolios and adjust as needed.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if you are invested properly for your situation? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out the Hire Me tab to learn more about my freelance financial writing and financial consulting services.  

Photo credit:  Flickr

Investing Seminars – Should You Attend?

It must be the season for investing and retirement dinner seminars. I’ve received a number of these invitations in the mail recently. Typical was one from a local investment firm “___ Cordially Invites You to Attend an EXCLUSIVE Dinner … [Continue reading]

Year-End 401(k) Matching – A Good Thing?

I was reminded of the issue of year-end 401(k) matching by employers when I learned that the employer of a close relative was changing their match to the end of the year. A few years ago, AOL announced that they were moving to a year-end once per … [Continue reading]

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

Financial fraud is all over the news.  Whether high-profile Ponzi Scheme cases via the likes of Madoff, Allen Stanford or many smaller cases, investors are being defrauded out of their hard-earned money at an alarming rate. I’d like to tell … [Continue reading]

A Pre-Retirement Financial Checklist

Are you within a few years of retirement? It’s time to get your financial house in order. We are now almost eight years into a bull market for stocks that has seen the S&P 500 move from 677 at the lows of the financial crises to a recent intraday … [Continue reading]

The Super Bowl and Your Investments

It’s Super Bowl time and once again my beloved Packers are not playing. They had a good season and beat the Giants and the top-seeded Cowboys in the playoffs. I attended the game against the Giants at football's holy shrine, Lambeau Field, my first … [Continue reading]

Stock Market Highs and Your Retirement

As I write this the Dow Jones Industrial Average has surpassed the 20,000-milestone intraday today. This comes some seven months after a 610 point drop in the Dow in the wake of the Brexit, the vote taken in U.K. where they decided to leave the … [Continue reading]

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

One of the best tax deductions for a small business owner is funding a retirement plan.  Beyond any tax deduction you are saving for your own retirement.  As a fellow small business person, I know how hard you work.  You deserve a comfortable … [Continue reading]

My Top 10 Most Read Posts of 2016

I hope that 2016 was a good year for you and your families and that you’ve had a wonderful holiday season. For us it was great to have our three adult children home and to be able to spend time together as a family. We all ate way too much good food. … [Continue reading]