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Confronting shrinking interest rates

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You know the investing climate is unusual when a stock’s dividend yields more than bonds issued by the same company.

Take Indianapolis-based oil refiner Calumet Specialty Products Partners LP, whose dividend-paying stock had an annualized yield in early December of 8.23 percent, while its bonds yielded 7.21 percent.

Many better-known, blue-chip stocks crossed the same threshold as bond prices continued to rise last year. An overheated fixed-income market would be yet another challenge for income-seeking investors, who’ve had few low-risk options in the era of rock-bottom interest rates.

yield_table.jpg“Without question, this is the hardest environment investors have seen, probably in our lifetime,” said Terry Weiss, president of Wallington Asset Management, an Indianapolis firm that handles more than $400 million for wealthy individuals. “And it’s coming at a difficult time because, what do you have? You’ve got a lot of people who are retiring.”

Local investment pros have different strategies, but they offered a common thread of advice: Don’t assume fixed-income means no risk.

“The last place you want to experience a loss in your portfolio is in the portion you thought was the safe piece of it,” said Brad Cougill, a partner at Indianapolis-based Deerfield Financial Advisors, which oversees $476 million for clients.

Investors poured more than $456 billion into global bond funds through Dec. 5, and $72.4 billion of that went into high-yield funds, or junk bonds, according to Boston-based EPFR Global, which tracks fund flows.

Money gushed harder toward bonds than in 2009 and 2010, when the total inflow was $354 billion.

The risk for bond investors is that yields are so low, even a slight rise in interest rates could erase the return, and continually rising rates could erode principal.

Cougill thinks the bond market will see some volatility over the next year, and he dispensed the same advice about sticking to an asset-allocation strategy that one often hears in the context of stock-market swings.

“I think people need to be prepared for that and know what they’re going to do,” he said.

With top-rated bonds yielding less than 3 percent, high-yield, or junk bonds became more attractive in 2012. Many of those bonds were held in new mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (which trade like stocks).

Winthrop Capital Management in Indianapolis looked closely at funds yielding 6 percent and found that most of their holdings were rated B or BB and yielded less than 5.5 percent. The remainder, which drove the overall return, went to bonds with double-digit yields.

“That’s the toxic stuff, and it has a high probability of defaulting,” Winthrop President and Chief Investment Officer Greg Hahn said.

Hahn isn’t against high-yield investing, but he said, “The question to ask is whether you’re getting compensated adequately.”

From a historic perspective, the answer to that question is no, he said. The yield spread between 10-year Treasury bonds, the safest investment, and junk bonds was near its tightest level in a decade in early December, he noted.

With interest rates near zero, the duration of a bond is as important to consider as credit quality, Weiss said. He doesn’t think interest rates will rise soon, but like other local wealth managers is careful not to invest in bonds going longer than five years.

Retail investors should look for bond mutual funds with durations no longer than five years, Weiss said. And given the low yields, he said, “I would be certain to be investing in mutual funds which have a very competitive fee structure.”

Fear of stocks justified?

The flight to fixed-income reflects a wariness of the stock market that’s persisted since the 2008 financial crisis.

“A lot of people are still running scared of the world, of the economy, of Washington,” said Don Woodley, principal at Woodley Farra Manion Portfolio Management in Indianapolis. “The safe industry is doing a bang-up business.”

Deerfield clients’ stock-market fears prompted the firm to adjust portfolios more toward high-quality bonds last year, Cougill said. As a result, total returns ranged from 5 percent to 8 percent.

“The stock market is up higher than that,” Cougill acknowledged. “But clients are saying, ‘Well that’s OK. We’d rather give up some of that upside.’”

Money flowed out of stock funds last year even as the Standard & Poor’s 500 posted double-digit returns. Investors pulled $67 billion out of equity funds through Dec. 5, according to EPFR Global, while the S&P 500 index returned 16 percent through Nov. 30.

Woodley, for one, thinks investors are missing an opportunity by sticking with what they see as safe havens. “Somehow people equate bonds with safety, and that’s not necessarily the case.”

Another option for investors looking for low-risk income is dividend stocks. Woodley, whose firm set up a dividend-stock mutual fund in 2011, looks for companies that not only pay dividends but increase them.

“It doesn’t have to be every year,” he said. “In a good year, they should be increasing their dividends and paying more and more to you.”

Utility stocks are an obvious source of dividends, and some yield 4.5 percent to 5 percent, Woodley said. (Dividend yield is the annual dividend per share divided by the share price.)

Utilities wouldn’t be attractive without the regular payments to investors. Earnings might grow 3 percent to 4 percent a year, Woodley said. “That’s good growth for a utility.”

Woodley also likes counter-cyclical companies like diaper and toilet-paper maker Kimberly-Clark, which has raised its dividend each of the last five years. The company’s earnings have also risen, an average 10 percent over five years, he noted.

“That growth is not spectacular. It allows an investor to rest comfortably,” he said.

Money managers like preferred stock because the dividends must be paid, even if earnings drop and the company cuts payments to common shareholders.

Preferred stock can seem as safe as a bond because it’s assigned a maturity date and par value, but there are risks, such as buying close to the call date, Woodley warned. “People can actually lose money if they buy the wrong preferred stock.”

Banking is another place to find rising dividends, though some money managers rule out the industry as too closely tied to potential economic shocks. For Hahn, who also likes preferred stock, banks are the only option to consider after utilities.

Each bank has a different risk profile, based on its particular niche and business strategy, Hahn said, so there’s no reason to rule them out.

“For decades, we just painted the brush over the whole industry,” he said.

When it comes to stocks in general, Hahn, who advises mostly institutional clients, is an uber-bear. At best, he thinks stocks will stay flat until global demand picks up, and he doesn’t think that will be in 2013.

“There really is no scenario we can come up with where stocks go on a roar,” he said.

Kip Wright, managing director at Kirr Marbach in Columbus, takes the opposite view.

“I think equities have the best potential going forward,” he said.

Finding sub-investment-grade bonds with upside potential became more difficult last year, he said. Yet investors still want returns of 5 percent to 7 percent, he said. “The only place you’re going to get those returns is by layering equities into your portfolio.”

Before the 2008 financial crisis, clients were willing to ride out events like the federal government’s fiscal cliff, Wright said. Lately, they can think only about locking in short-term returns.

“Looking for those guarantees are costing people a lot of money in this environment,” he said.•

This story originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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