Bond funds are not BONDS

In Investments on 01/11/2011 at 6:43 am

There is an ad from a very reputable fund manager advertising its Asian bond fund. If you find the idea of buying into a bond fund attractive, read u/m which I posted some time ago on the difference between buying a bond fund and a bond.


In search of safe and non-volatile returns, retail investors globally have invested heavily in bond funds, often thinking they are as safe as investing in individual bonds: with the added advantages of diversification (of interest rates, maturities, and default risks); and lower investment costs.

Sadly, they are not the same.

When you invest in a bond, you know the interest rate and the duration (maturity date) of the bond. When interest rates go up, the value of a bond goes down. But you will  get the promised interest and if you  hold the bond until it matures, you will  get your principal back. Bit like a fixed deposit.

You will only lose your principal if you decide to sell it before it matures.

But a bond fund doesn’t work that way because it invests in many bonds, hundreds, possibly thousands. There are many different interest rates and maturities (durations).  So you don’t have a defined interest rate or a maturity date. You have an average interest rate and average duration for all the bonds in the fund.

This may seem an esoteric difference, but believe me, when interest rates rise you will regret not knowing the difference earlier.

You could lose serious money because for any percentage point change in interest rates, the value of the fund will change by the amount of the duration. This sounds complicated but the following illustration will make clear the inconvenient truth.

If the fund holds bonds with an average duration of 10 years, and 10-yr interest rates go up by one percentage point in the capital markets, the value of your fund will drop by 10%. If the fund before the interest rate rise was worth $100m, after the rise, the fund is only worth $90m. BTW, the longer the average duration in the fund, the bigger should be the loss. If the average duration was 40 yrs, the loss would be 40%. Buying shares is safer neh?

Going online to complain to Tan Kin Lian or protesting at Hong Lim Green claiming that you have been cheated is a waste of time. It’s yr fault.

So think twice about investing in a bond fund, if you want safe, steady returns. It may not work out that way.

Finally, came across this interesting quote. “People would rather overpay for bonds than underpay for stocks,” says David Kelly, a strategist for J. P. Morgan Funds. “It’s a function of years of very miserable stock returns. And just a general fog of gloom over the country right now.”

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