For the past two years, analysts have given plenty of reasons why Treasurys should be a bad investment. The yields on our government's bonds are so small they have to be found with an electron microscope. Inflation -- if it ever comes back -- would probably wipe out the value of the income that Treasurys generate. And in the eyes of some, the nation's acrimonious political climate has made the once-unthinkable -- a Greek-like fiscal tragedy -- actually seem possible here.
But everyone who has bet against Treasurys has been horribly wrong. Over the past few months, Treasurys, some of which are yielding next to nothing, have been some of the best investments. The price of the 10-year bond rose dramatically in a matter of months, crushing the values of all the exchange-traded funds betting against the bond. Even erstwhile bond king Bill Gross threw in the towel, unwinding his anti-Treasury strategy in the $242 billion fund he runs, Pimco Total Return. (Pimco declined to comment.)
The dramatic surge in Treasury bond prices has led to an equally dramatic outcome for a different crop of investors: those seeking steady income. Bond prices and yields, of course, move in opposite directions -- and right now the yield end of the seesaw couldn't get much lower. At the current rate, a $10,000 investment in a 10-year Treasury bond would lock in about $200 in annual payouts. And that can seem like Defcon 1 for many investors -- in particular, for retirees -- who have long counted on these government notes as a source for safe and steady income. As Lon Erickson, managing director at Thornburg Investment Management, sums up the predicament: "Two percent is not going to pay a lot of bills."
Spreading Good Cheer
A bond's price and yield are only part of the picture for investors; there's also the "spread" to consider. The spread is the difference in yield between one bond -- such as the 10-year Treasury benchmark -- and another of comparable maturity. And they widen and narrow, depending largely on how the market perceives risk. Here's what they're doing now.
Investment-grade corporate debt: Yielding 2.4 percentage points above Treasurys. "If you can absorb a bit of risk in your portfolio, you should be all over this," says Chris Shayne, senior market strategist at BondDesk Group.
Municipal bonds: Since the interest earned on munis is often tax-free, munis traditionally yield less than Treasurys. But nowadays, even before that tax break is taken into account, muni payouts are higher than Treasurys', making them a better option, some pros say.
Luckily, say many pros, income seekers have a number of surprisingly good alternatives to the old government standbys -- and indeed, some offer the best income opportunities investors have seen in many months. Bonds from high-quality companies have grown attractive recently, with yields in many cases double those of corresponding Treasurys. The same goes for high-yield, so-called junk bonds, issued by less financially secure firms. Experts also point out that bank debt offers some of the best income opportunities around at a time when the risk of default has moderated. In short, pros say, investors don't have to settle for next-to-nothing yields.
Investment-grade corporate bonds, for instance, yield 2.4 percentage points more than comparable Treasury bonds, up from 1.4 points in the spring. And yields on junk bonds, on the whole, outpace those for Treasurys by a hefty 8.1 points, up from their five-point spread earlier this year. Overall, the balance sheets in corporate America, including those at many of the junk-issuing firms, are much stronger than they were during the worst of the financial crisis, says Roger Early, chief investment officer of Delaware Investments, which manages $122 billion in bonds. He says he likes debt issued by investment-grade regional banks.
In fact, a handful of household names, such as Exxon Mobil and Johnson & Johnson, now boast higher credit ratings than government debt does, at least according to Standard & Poor's. (By the reckoning of rating firms Moody's and Fitch, the companies' credit is on par with that of the U.S.) Early's firm holds an A-rated bond from PNC, a Pittsburgh-based bank, that matures in 2020 and yields 3.9 percent.
Some advisers, meanwhile, are putting their more adventuresome income-seeking clients into high-yield bonds. While they're more likely to default than their better-rated cousins, the market has priced in more risk than probably exists, say experts. James Sarni, managing principal at Payden & Rygel Investment Management, in Los Angeles, which oversees $60 billion in assets, likes the bonds of Cablevision; the company, based in Bethpage, N.Y., is rated below investment grade but has ample free cash, Sarni says. He holds a bond that matures in 2019 and yields a robust 6.7 percent.
If individual bank bonds look good to some pros, so-called bank loans look even better to other experts. Bank loans are actually a form of short-term financing. They're often bundled together and packaged into mutual funds that have terms like floating rate or bank loan in their title. With an average yield of 4.8 percent, bank-loan funds currently offer solid income potential. Another bonus: When interest rates finally rise, says Anthony Valeri, market strategist at Boston-based LPL Financial, the interest payments on bank loans will rise along with them.
To be sure, Treasurys may continue to be a great short-term investment for traders seeking price appreciation. So far this year, bonds with maturities of 10 years and higher have returned nearly 24 percent. That type of performance is rare for Treasurys, but many pros recommend that investors hold some Treasurys as a kind of ballast for their overall portfolios. Uncle Sam's debt is among the most liquid investments in the world, says Krishna Memani, senior vice president for OppenheimerFunds. That means investors can cash out instantly without taking a hit in a bad market.
Just don't expect the income on your Treasury bonds to help with the mortgage. Yields are going to be skimpy for a while to come: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says the central bank expects to keep short-term interest rates near zero through at least mid-2013. The Fed likely will raise rates only if the nation's job situation rapidly improves -- an unlikely prospect, many pros say.