Investors often turn to bonds as a lower-risk alternative to stocks, and for many, bond funds offer a convenient way to diversify their portfolios. However, the notion that bond funds are an inherently safer bet can be misleading. In some circumstances, bond funds can actually carry more risk than the underlying bonds themselves. Let’s dive into how the supposed advantages of bond funds, like diversification and pooled investment, can sometimes be double-edged swords.
The Myth of Diversification
The basic principle of diversification is “not putting all your eggs in one basket,” but what if some of the baskets are riskier than you’d like? In a bond fund, your investment is spread across various bonds issued by governments, municipalities, or corporations. While this mitigates the credit risk associated with any single issuer, it also exposes you to sectors or asset classes you might prefer to avoid.
Bond funds often hold a wide range of assets, including corporate bonds, high-yield (junk) bonds, and even international bonds. For example, if you buy into a fund for its exposure to high-quality corporate bonds, you might unintentionally take on exposure to lower-rated or riskier bonds. You may also be exposed to interest rate risk, credit risk, and even currency risk if the fund invests internationally.
Lack of Control
Unlike direct bond investments, where you can pick and choose your level of risk and yield, bond funds don’t offer the same level of control. You rely on the fund manager’s judgment, which may or may not align with your own risk tolerance and financial objectives.
The Domino Effect of Redemptions
One of the biggest risks with bond funds comes from the potential for large-scale redemptions. Unlike individual bonds, which you hold until maturity unless you decide to sell them, bond funds are subject to the investment whims of all the participants in the fund.
If a significant number of investors decide to pull out of a bond fund, the fund may have to sell bonds to provide the cash for redemptions. This is especially problematic if the bonds have to be sold in a declining market, as it locks in losses that are passed on to remaining investors.
The need to meet redemptions could force the fund to sell its most liquid assets first, leaving the fund holding a larger proportion of illiquid or lower-quality bonds. This can affect the fund’s performance and potentially increase its volatility.
The Importance of Due Diligence
The key takeaway here is that while bond funds offer the advantage of professional management and diversification, they are not without their risks. Due diligence is crucial before adding any investment to your portfolio, including bond funds. If you or the person who manages your money insists on just stuffing more money into bond funds, it comes at a substantial cost you you in the form of added fees, performance, and risks.
Investors should carefully read fund prospectuses and reports, understand the risks associated, and possibly consult a financial advisor to see if the fund aligns with their risk tolerance and investment goals. Only then can you make an informed decision about whether a bond fund is a right investment for you.