by Manisha Thakor
"Last year I invested in a bond fund and now I've lost money. What happened? I thought bonds were supposed to be safe investments!"
Recently several people have asked me this same question. Given the turbulent economic times we're (hopefully!) coming out of, it's understandable that folks want to find a "safe investment" to hunker down in.
Alas, the phrase "safe investment" is an oxymoron. The whole point of investing is taking on some risk with the hope, but not the guarantee, of earning a higher return than you'd get from doing something risk free.
So how did bonds get the reputation of being "safe?" Well, at their core, bonds are loans. You lend money for a pre-determined period of time. In return you receive interest at specified intervals. When your loan (a.k.a. bond) matures you get back the money you originally loaned - if the entity hasn't gone bankrupt.
It is the return of that original investment that has caused people to view bonds as "safe" investments. Alas, there are always risks with any investments. The two classic ones for individual bonds are:
Credit Risk: This is the risk that the entity you lend to goes belly up and can't pay you back.
Interest Rate Risk: Bonds are like seesaws. When interest rates go up, the price of bonds go down. If you hold your bond until it matures, the impact is all on paper. But if you are forced to sell your bond before its maturity date and interest rates are higher than when you bought that bond, the price you'll receive will be less than you originally invested.
Another problem with individual bonds is you often need a pretty hefty chunk of change to buy them. This is where bond mutual funds come in. For example, if you had $10,000 to invest you might be able to buy one bond. But by pooling your money with other people's money, bond mutual funds enable you to take that $10,000 and spread it out over many different bonds. That helps you spread out your risk.
However, when individual investors decide to take their money out of a bond fund, the portfolio manager may be forced to sell bonds at less than desirable prices to give them back their money. You could call this liquidity risk. Over the past year, as interest rates have inched up and there have been concerns about credit quality, the price of some bond funds has declined as these risks all reared their heads.
What does this mean for you? It means that like stock funds, bond funds also have some risk associated with them. They should not be thought of as "100% safe" substitutes for FDIC insured savings accounts. Rather, they are intended to be part of a well-balanced portfolio. Another way to keep your risk low is to invest in bond funds that have average maturities of 5 years or less because they seesaw around less violently as interest rates move.
What additional questions do you have about bonds or bond funds?