The case for holding Government Bonds is all about certainty. The question isn’t why would you own bonds but, in the current environment, why wouldn’t you own bonds to deliver certainty in such uncertain times?
This is the central argument for holding government bonds within a portfolio. The case for holding government bonds is well presented in a recent article by Darren Langer, from Nikko Asset Management, Why you can’t afford not to own government bonds.
As he argues, government bonds are the only asset where you know with absolute certainty the amount of income you will get over its life and how much it will be worth on maturity. For most other assets, you will only ever know the true return in arrears.
The article examines some of the reasons why owning government bonds makes good sense in today’s investment and economic climate. It is well worth reading.
Why you can’t afford not to own government bonds
The argument against holding government bonds are based on expectations of higher interest rates, higher inflation, and current extremely low yields.
As argued in the article, although these are all very valid reasons for not holding government bonds, they all require a world economy that is growing strongly. This is far from the case currently.
They key point being made here, in my opinion, is that the future is unknown, and there are numerous likely economic and market outcomes.
Therefore, investors need to consider an array of likely scenarios and test their assumptions of what is “likely” to happen. For example, what is the ‘normal’ level of interest rates? Are they likely to return to normal levels when the experience since the Global Financial Crisis has been a slow grind to zero?
Personally, although inflation is not an issue now, I do think we should be preparing portfolios for a period of higher inflation, as I outline here. Albeit, this does not negate the role of fixed income in a portfolio.
The article argues that current conditions appear to be different and given this it is not unrealistic to expect that inflation and interest rates are likely to remain low for many years and significantly lower than the past 30 years.
In an uncertain world, government bonds provide certainty. Given multiple economic and market scenarios to consider, maintaining an allocation to government bonds in a genuinely diverse and robust portfolio does not appear unreasonable on this basis.
Investors should be prepared for lower rates of returns across all assets classes, not just fixed income.
A likely scenario is that governments and central banks will target an environment of stable and low interest rates for a prolonged period.
In this type of environment, government bonds have the potential to provide a reasonable return with some certainty. The article argues, the benefits to owning bonds under these conditions are two-fold:
- A positively sloped yield curve in a market where yields are at or near their ceiling levels. Investors can move out the curve (i.e. by buying longer maturity bonds) to pick up higher coupon income without taking on more risk.
- Investors can, over time, ride a position down the positively-sloped yield curve (i.e. over time the bond will gain in value from the passing of time because shorter rates are lower than longer rates). This is often described as roll-down return.
The article concludes, that although fixed income may lose money during times of strong economic growth, rising interest rates, and higher inflation, these losses can be offset by the gains on riskier assets in a portfolio. Losses on fixed income are small compared to potential losses on other asset classes and are generally recovered more quickly.
No one would suggest a 100% allocation to government bonds is a balanced investment strategy; likewise, not having an allocation to bonds should also be considered unbalanced.
“But a known return in an uncertain world, where returns on all asset classes are likely to be lower than the past, might just be a good thing to have in a portfolio.”
The future role of fixed income in a robust portfolio has been covered regularly by Kiwi Investor Blog, the latest Post can be found here: What do Investors need in the current environment? – Rethink the 40 in 60/40 Portfolios?
The article on the case for government bonds helps bring some balance to the discussion around fixed income and the points within should be considered when determining portfolio investment strategies in the current environment.
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