Best Bond and Bond Fund Alternatives
What are the best alternative to bonds?
Bond alternatives are an interesting consideration given the recent low-interest rate environment that has now given way to high Inflation and a rapid increase in short-term interest rates.
If you have de-risked from your accumulation portfolio, you likely have quite a bit of money invested in bonds. Are there any alternatives to bond funds worth considering?
As an investment class, fixed income includes bonds, cash, and other assets. What are the options for fixed income investing, and what are the best alternatives to bonds one may consider?
Why Bonds in Your Portfolio?
Before we begin, why do you have bonds in your portfolio?
Bonds do three things:
- Ballast- They provide ballast to the portfolio price stability. Most of the time, you expect return of your principal at the end of the term
- Income- Bonds pay out twice a year until maturity. Interest rates are currently low, which is why some people are seeking bond alternatives
- Diversification- Bonds are less correlated than other asset classes with equities. When the stock market takes a hit, often bonds increase in price, which can offset the losses depending on your asset allocation
Instead of worrying about income, think about ballast and diversification. Fixed income investing is not about income anymore!
Fixed Income Investing is not about Income
Not infrequently, those in retirement seek to replace their biweekly income. Retirement planning, after all, is all about creating retirement income from your assets.
Should you try to pay for the expenses during retirement via dividends and other income from your portfolio? No! I argue income is not necessary from your retirement portfolio; it is total return that is most important. Let’s not get into the discussion about yield vs. total return too much here. Suffice it to say that, for the most part, they are two sides of the same coin.
Focusing on yield, however, can lead to yield chasing. Chasing yield implies you are taking on more risk than you realize because you believe you need to create income with your portfolio.
Do not chase risk! Take risk in your risky assets and be safe with your safe assets!
Chasing yield is dangerous. Increasing risk to get income is a losing proposition.
Bonds are not for yield; they are for protection.
Not everyone will agree with me. That’s fine, but consider what risk you are taking in your portfolio and if you need to take that risk to meet your goals in retirement. If you need risk to meet your retirement goals, then we have other issues to worry about.
Let’s transition now and discuss the basics of fixed income. What are your options for the bond portion of your portfolio?
What are the Best Alternatives to Bonds?
Before we get to the best bond alternatives, what are bonds? Here are some examples:
- Treasury Bills- Short-term, these treasury bills mature within one year and do not pay coupons. You buy the bill at a price less than its face value and earn that difference at the maturity.
- Treasury Notes- Notes mature between 2 and 10 years and usually have a $1,000 face value.
- Treasury Bonds- Similar to the T-notes except treasury bonds have longer maturities, up to 30 years.
- TIPs (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities)- The principal adjusts with Inflation and deflation, thus protecting you from Inflation. Coupon payments tend to be lower with TIPs. TIPs have duration, too, which is important to consider.
- I-Bonds- There has been a surge of interest in I-bonds lately, given inflation concerns. The primary limit is you can only buy 10k per year per social security number. Right now, I-Bonds deserve consideration as the best bond fund alternatives.
- Municipal Bonds- Backed by a state, municipality, or county to finance capital expenditures. Muni bonds offer federal tax-free payments, and they can be tax-free in your state as well. These might go into your brokerage account if you have a high tax rate.
- Corporate Bonds- A loan to a company, the price and interest rate depend on the company’s financial stability. If the corporation goes under, you can suffer risk of your principle.
- High Yield Bonds- Also known as Junk bonds, these have a higher risk of default and thus pay extra.
- CDs- Certificate of Deposits are fixed income offered by banks with FDIC protection.
- Fixed-Income Mutual Funds or ETFs- Finally, most of the above products can be wrapped into a mutual fund or ETF. These are “bond funds.”
Best Bond Alternatives
So, what to do if you are not interested in chasing yield but want the other benefits from fixed income? Remember, diversification through decreased correlation with the stock market and ballast to limit losses on your portfolio is the name of the game.
Above, you can see one view of the alternative investment world, from which we can pick the best bond alternatives. Many above are stock-equivalents. What are bond equivalents and thus a possible best bond alternative?
What are options for the best bond alternatives? Consider real estate, insurance products, buffered ETFs, and miscellaneous ideas (Ag and wine).
Real Estate as Bond Fund Alternatives
First off, if you owe money via a mortgage, paying your mortgage off may be the best bond alternative out there!
This is because debt is like a negative bond. As you pay off debt, you increase your exposure to bonds. Another way to say this: if you own equities yet are in debt, you are using leverage to buy those equities. You may have more risk than you think!
REITs are another alternative to bonds. REITs pay more income than bonds but tend to act like equities and be very volatile when the market is volatile. As a result, most folks consider REITs part of their equity allocation, though you could include it as your real estate allocation or even as a type of bond alternative.
Real estate can also be a bond alternative through active or passive investments. Again, this is a broad subject. Entire websites are devoted to delving into the intricacies of real estate as an alternative investment.
Insurance Products as Bond Fund Alternatives
Insurance products offer risk pooling and are a strong consideration as a bond alternative. In addition, you can choose from life insurance and annuities.
Permanent Life Insurance
There are many different types of permanent life insurance. You should probably avoid these complicated and expensive products unless you have a specific need for permanent life insurance.
What are your options?
Whole Life Insurance
Whole life is the best insurance option as a bond alternative. This is because Whole Life is truly non-correlated with stock market returns. Though the return on investment may be low, there is a guaranteed return on whole life and the ability to make extra returns through paid-up additions and dividends on the mutual company. If you seek diversification from stocks and bonds (and you require permanent life insurance), explore options in Whole Life insurance.
Universal Life is NOT as good of a bond alternative as Whole Life. This is because, first off, variable universal life invests in equities. Sure, there are “guaranteed” returns in your fictional account that may be tied to income riders, but that gets my head spinning with complexity.
Next, Fixed Indexed products depend on fixed income for the floor. Why not just own the fixed income yourself? Options on equity returns allow for the “extra” return that salesmen pitch. Well, if interest rates are low, there is not much extra to pay for the options, so expect caps and spreads (which can be changed at any time by the insurance company) to go down with decreasing interest rates. If you are going to invest in a Fixed Indexed Life insurance product, you might as well use a structured product.
Structured Products are complicated and should not be used as a hedge. These are not good alternatives to fixed income. Speaking of complexity, try to actually understand one of these products.
Annuities as Bond Alternatives
Annuities are strong contenders as fixed-income alternatives. But, unfortunately, there are many different types!
Single Premium Immediate Annuities can be used to provide floor income and thus obviate the need for bonds. As a result, they are a strong contender as a bond alternative.
Deferred income Annuities offer longevity protection. Consider a QLAC if you have a large IRA. Otherwise, annuities are affected by interest rates, so DIAs are not screaming deals right now.
Multi-Year Guaranteed Annuities are also interesting but subject to low-interest rates as well. If you consider a bond ladder, consider MYGAs as rungs in your ladder. I think more traditional DIY investors should get to know MYGAs. These products are not sold to you; you have to go out looking for one to buy. If you have money you need back in a few years, consider a MYGA instead of leaving the money instead of a high yield savings account. Of course, you need to be 60 to avoid a 10% penalty for “early withdrawal” from these products.
Fixed Indexed Annuities may be a decent alternative to bonds. However, buyer beware, and prepare to spend many hours understanding these complicated and expensive products. Income riders can offer bond-like annuity or non-annuity income for future income needs. If you know you want income in the future from an annuity, a FIA is a consideration. Buyer beware, however, as these may suffer from low caps and high spreads given low-interest rates.
The newest fancy expensive annuity on the block, are you being sold a RILA Annuity? If so, make sure you understand how similar this is to a structured product and that you can get this without the annuity wrapper with a buffered ETF.
Variable Annuities are garbage and should not be considered as bond alternatives. There, I said it.
Other insurance products such as viatical settlements, reinsurance, etc. that, are also possible fixed-income alternatives. If you want those, be ready to deal with risk with a side of illiquidity.
Pensions are the Best Bond Alterative
Pensions are a great alternative to bonds. You can view that as part of your floor expenses if you have a pension and reduce your bond exposure accordingly.
Social Security is perhaps the best bond alternative. Understand how to Maximize your Social Security and have a guaranteed, lifelong income that is better than any fixed-income alternative. You can understand your SS bend points to maximize your social security.
Best Bond Alternative: Fine Wine
What about Fine Wine as a bond alternative?
Is Wine an Investment?
Generally, wine and wives get better with age. But, in addition, both become scarcer over time. Wine because people consume it, and wives because they like to spend more time with their horses than husbands.
But think about this: if something gets better yet scarcer over time, that seems like a good setup for price appreciation. With investment-grade wine, the goal is to buy low and sell high.
Investment-grade wine can be purchased and stored to sell it later for others’ consumption. There is a thriving marketplace for investment-grade wine, and there are several options for wine investing.
Why Invest In Wines?
What about wine as the best bond alternative? We seek diversification and non-correlation with the stock market. Wine has a 12-20% annualized return over the decades and is not correlated with the stock market.
If the market crashes, fewer rich people may buy your wine. Nevertheless, prices over the long term increase as wine is consumed. And honestly, the rich know better than to be hurt too badly by market crashes… and have plenty to spend on good wine even during economic downturns.
I believe wine is a bond-alternative. You might get better returns than bonds with a risk that is non-correlated with stock or bond market risk. What! Didn’t you say wine returns 12-20% a year?!? Yes, that is pre-tax and before fees.
As risks are uncorrelated with stock and bond market risk, I suggest that when you invest in wine, you use your bond allocation to do so. In fact, 1-5% of your bond portfolio might be in aged crushed grapes. How sweet is that?
Use a Wine Investment Company
I chose Vinovest. (Note, this is not an affiliate link but I may have reduced account fees if you use this link to invest.)
Check out the website. Pretty slick! Vinovest is an online platform and a one-stop shop for wine investing. They research, authenticate, buy and store wine for you. What they buy depends on your risk profile and expected holding duration.
After purchase, your wine is stored in professional storage facilities, and they insure your wine as well.
Vinovest also provides a secondary marketplace, so your investment is actually liquid. As I recommend you use wine investing as a bond-alternative of modest duration, the liquidity is a bonus.
Best Alternative to Bonds: Farmland
The idea behind alternative investing: own assets not correlated with your other investments. Your overall portfolio may be sheltered through alternative investments when the stock market crashes. Or maybe the market has had a lousy decade… wouldn’t it be nice to own something not linked to market returns?
Alternative investments have a different risk-return profile and might provide an improved risk-adjusted return. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Farmland is non-correlated and a best bond alternative.
Additional considerations include Floating Rate Loans, Private Equity, Senior Loans, Mezzanine debt, Farmland, raw land, timber, Commodities, Gold, Hedge Funds, and Private Equity.
I-bonds are a consideration for the best bond-alternative. Here are some reasons:
- High Inflation won’t be Around Forever
Too many people think that Inflation is a big deal. It is a big deal, don’t get me wrong, but it is a big deal over the decades you spend in retirement. Compound inflation is a big deal. How long do you plan on owning your I-Bonds? Are you going to hold them for 20-30 years?
What do you think bonds have done in the last 30 years? Well, 5-6% if you can believe it. Thus, you are almost certainly locking in a lower return if you invest in I-Bonds vs. just about any other type of bond. And that is the highest interest rates I-bond have paid. So what is the usual interest rate?
- I-Bonds Don’t Pay Very Much Interest
Next, and this may be news to some, I-Bonds don’t pay very much interest.
Looking at the historical returns for I-Bonds since 2012, .the base or fixed rate is usually 0 but can be as high as 0.5%. (Remember, right now, the base rate is 0).
Admittedly we have had low Inflation in the last decade, but the 6-month crediting rate has been between negative 0.8 and 1.54. This means that you might make 1.5-2% on your I-Bonds in the future if we use recent history as our guide.
Are you excited about a bond that pays less than 2%? Sure, that’s what bonds are paying now (in general), but they will pay more as interest rates improve. So, are you going to lock in low rates with your I-Bonds? Sure, you can sell them, but you lose three months’ worth of interest if you sell them before you have them for five years.
- You can “Only” put in 10k Per Person
This is also not a new criticism, but there is a limit on how much you can invest into I-Bonds per year. While there are workarounds, the small amount a well-to-do investor can invest every year limits the usefulness of I-Bonds.
- Early Withdrawal Penalties
Remember you cannot get your money out of I-Bonds in the first year, and there is a 3M early withdrawal penalty on the interest if you take it out before five years.
Then remember to get the money out before 30 years, and they stop earning interest.
- CPI-U Does not Reflect Real Inflation
The inflation proportion of the interest is based upon CPI-U. I’m not going to re-hash the issues here, but CPI-U is not a good measure of actual Inflation. It is an undercount by all measures, designed to decrease the inflation adjustments to social security.
The problem with Inflation is when it compounds. In retirement, you might be stuck with 20-30 years of compounding Inflation. You don’t need a “hedge” against Inflation; you need to beat it. You don’t beat actual Inflation with I-Bonds.
- You can Redeem and Re-buy if the Fixed Rate Goes Up
Wait, this is a downside of I-Bonds. Yes, it is! Remember there is a limitation on how much you can buy each year, even if you sell I-Bonds. You don’t get to “trade-up” to get a higher fixed rate.
- You Can Own I-Bonds in Tax-Deferred Accounts
Why would you want I-Bonds in Tax-deferred anyway, since the tax is deferred on I-Bonds until you sell them? Most folks want their bonds in their retirement accounts rather than in their brokerage accounts.
So an honest comparison of I-Bonds in the Brokerage account would be to Munis or regular taxable bonds.
- I-Bonds Won’t Affect Your Asset Allocation
How much will 10-20k in I-Bonds change your asset allocation? Remember, I-Bonds are a poor use for an emergency fund unless you never plan on using it.
In summary, I-bonds are a great cash-alternative, but with long-term returns approaching 2%, maybe not the best bond alternative.
Best Bond Fund Alternative of All
The best bond alternative– have you heard of structured ETFs? Check them out. With all the advantages of FIA, RILAs, or FILAs without the annuity chassis, structured ETFs are the best bond alternative today.
If you are looking for principal protection and bond-like returns, buffered ETFs may be the way to go.
Conclusion – Alternatives to Bonds
So, what are the best alternative to bonds?
If you must invest in alternatives to bonds, remember, don’t reach for yield. The point of fixed income is stability and diversification. Don’t become mired in the mirage of income!
Real estate, income annuities, and perhaps Whole Life insurance might be your best bet for uncorrelated returns. Of course, farmland and wine are exciting possibilities. The best bond alternatives, however, are buffered ETFs.
Never forget about pensions and social security, which are bond alternative gold. Though you got to be looking at two year treasuries right now and thinking that 3% looks pretty good.