Abstract illustration of red dots traveling on aqua ribbon.
Markets and economy

Why higher yields may be good for many retirement investors

9 minute read
  •  
November 24, 2023
Markets and economy
Market & economy insights
Article
Page
Bonds
Interest rates
Cash investments

Volatility in bond markets, caused in part by rising interest rates, has left many investors wondering what the current environment means for their portfolios. These concerns might be particularly acute for those nearing or in retirement given that these investors may have relatively shorter time horizons and may be more heavily invested in fixed income.

But according to Roger Aliaga-Díaz, Vanguard's global head of portfolio construction and chief economist for the Americas, and Anatoly Shtekhman, Vanguard's head of global advised portfolio construction, bonds remain an important staple in retirement portfolios and are poised to offer significantly more value.

"In addition to diversifying your portfolio to help lower your overall risk by offsetting stock market volatility, bonds are now providing healthier yields than we've seen since before the 2008 global financial crisis," Aliaga-Díaz said. “Retirement investors who might be considering reducing their exposure to bonds because of the pain endured during the recent rise in interest rates might want to reassess their situation, as the benefit of higher rates to retirement portfolios is about to come."

Components of bond returns

Bonds are unique in that their returns consist of two parts: price return and coupons or income return. The income return comprises the compounded interest on bond coupon payments.

Long-term investors, such as those with longer horizons until they retire or who are early in their retirement, should consider the combination of these two components instead of solely concentrating on bond price returns. When interest rates fluctuate, the two components tend to move in opposite directions. While higher rates may negatively affect bond prices initially, long-term investors stand to benefit by reinvesting and compounding at higher yields in the future.

Rising yields can lead to higher returns over the long term

Hypothetical cumulative returns

Notes: The two plotted lines represents two hypothetical scenarios. The first displays the actual performance of the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index from February 1, 2022, through September 30, 2023, and then assumes that the yield remains constant at 5.39% thereafter. The second scenario assumes that the yield remains constant at 2.33% each year. The hypothetical cumulative returns assume that income is reinvested with no changes to prices. This hypothetical illustration does not represent the return on any particular investment and the rate is not guaranteed.

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.

Source: Vanguard.

Although rising interest rates always pose risk to bond investors, Aliaga-Díaz explained, higher rates for longer create a favorable environment for retirement portfolios. By contrast, the previous decade of stable but ultra-low yields was detrimental to investors' chances of accumulating sufficient retirement funding.

"With yields at their highest levels in 15 years, bonds today can offer more significant value in total returns to a portfolio, particularly if inflation continues to come down from elevated levels," he said. "As higher yields compensate for last year's capital losses, the cumulative total return should become positive."

The initial portfolio yield is a good indicator of long-term total returns

Notes: We assume a parallel shift in the yield curve of 236 basis points in year one and 82 basis points in year two. (A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.) For simplicity, duration is assumed to remain at 6.1 years, although in practice, as yields change, duration will also change. For illustrative purposes, we assume no changes to yields in years three through 10. This hypothetical illustration does not represent the return on any particular investment and the rate is not guaranteed.

Source: Vanguard.

Bonds versus cash

After the recent subpar performance of bonds, it may be tempting to wait in cash for the right moment to reinvest in bonds. But shifting your long-term portfolio from bonds to cash comes with risks to your long-term retirement goals. Over extended time periods, bonds have provided better returns.

Using the 3-month U.S. Treasury bill as a proxy for cash and the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index as a proxy for bonds, we compared the returns of both asset classes between January 31, 1978, and September 30, 2023, and found that bonds outperformed cash most of the time, as the next figure shows.

"While higher cash rates lead to higher cash returns, bonds are still a better alternative, especially over longer periods of time," Shtekhman said. "The safety of cash is appropriate for short-term spending needs. But when comparing the performance of bonds and cash over longer periods, bonds outperform cash in the majority of cases, even when cash yields are relatively high."

Although cash rates are currently at 20-year highs, Shtekhman added, the Federal Reserve may be nearing the end of its rate-hiking cycle and may eventually have to cut rates.

"Investors who have a large allocation to cash may be very disappointed," he said. "They need to think strategically, and unreasonably high cash allocations can be detrimental to achieving long-term investment goals."

Bonds have often outperformed cash even when rates were high

Notes: Using the 3-month U.S. Treasury bill as a proxy for cash and the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index as a proxy for bonds, we compared the performance of both asset classes over five-year periods between January 31, 1978, and September 30, 2023, and found that bonds outperformed in the majority of cases.

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.

Sources: Vanguard, based on data from Factset and the Federal Reserve.

Aliaga-Díaz cautioned that there have been prolonged periods of rising rates that led to extended stretches of negative bond market performance, most notably during the 1970s. But he argues that the latest cycle of Fed rate hikes is nearing an end and that bonds are poised for a rebound.

"We believe that long-term investors, including those saving for retirement, should focus on total returns on bonds rather than prices and let higher interest rates work in their favor by allowing the compounding to take effect," he said.

Related items

Most Viewed

Ready to invest? See how to open an account
Start with this step-by-step guide to opening a personal investment account, such as a general investing brokerage account or an IRA.
Backdoor Roth IRA What it is and how to set it up
If you are a high-income earner, a Backdoor Roth IRA may be a good retirement investment option for you. Learn what it is and how to set up this type of retirement plan.
Who owns Vanguard?
Who owns Vanguard? Learn why we're proud to be the only investor-owned investment management company and how we focus on putting investor needs first.
Are bonds a good investment right now?
Learn how high-quality bonds can play a valuable role in your portfolio in a high-yield environment.
Top 6 tips: Your year-end financial checklist
Discover our new international fund

All investing is subject to risk, including possible loss of principal. Be aware that fluctuations in the financial markets and other factors may cause declines in the value of your account. 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. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Bond funds are subject to interest rate risk, which is the chance bond prices overall will decline because of rising interest rates, and credit risk, which is the chance a bond issuer will fail to pay interest and principal in a timely manner or that negative perceptions of the issuer's ability to make such payments will cause the price of that bond to decline.