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Treasury ETFs

Photo by: Ryan McFarland

U.S. Treasuries surged in popularity during the recent crisis.  In fact at one point people were so anxious to buy up treasuries that the short-term yield dropped to 0%.  At this point Warren Buffet emailed his directors:

This should be bullish for Berkshire. With great foresight, I long ago entered the mattress business in a big way through our furniture operation. Now mattresses have become fully competitive as a place to put your money, and sales will soon take off.[1] 

People were anxious to find a safe place to put their money, which is one of the strong suits of U.S. Treasuries. 

Treasuries have a very different risk profile than many other investments.  There is a very low risk of default compared to other types of bonds, but you are exposed to risks like inflation.  ETFs can provide a way to introduce this risk profile into our portfolios more easily than actually buying the bonds.  There are several ETFs which allow you to do this and many concepts that can be pivotal to understand before doing so.  

Understanding Yields and Prices

Bond prices and yields can be a bit opaque to those without experience; however they are a fairly simple concept.  When a bond is issued, it pays a certain amount and has a certain cost.  Say for example I buy a $10,000 bond that will pay me $300 per year.  Thus it yields 3%.  Now many would think that since the bond will repay my $10,000 at the end of its life, it would be a risk-free investment.  However suppose that interest rates go down at that 3% becomes more attractive, people will be willing to pay more for that same bond.  As the price goes up, the $300 per year becomes a smaller fraction and the yield of the bond goes down.  Meanwhile if interest rates go up, my bond becomes less attractive and the price will go down.  

This is very important when considering inflation.  Generally if inflation is high, you will see higher interest rates.  As such in an inflationary environment, bond yields tend to increase, meaning the price of any bonds you own may very well go down.  This means that the term of the bond becomes very important.  While over a short period of time, inflation may be predictable; over long periods any number of things can happen to affect interest rates.  Obviously because of this, longer dated bonds tend to pay higher yields.  

Treasury ETFs

There are many treasury ETFs and will likely be many more in the future.  Some of the more popular ones include:

TLT – Long Term Treasuries (more…)

  1. Forbes – Buffet Bets On Mattresses []
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Investing Step 10: Techniques

This post is step 10 in our Investing Template.

Once you’ve decided how your money should be allocated, it then becomes a matter of execution.  There are many details that can make a tremendous difference in how your returns are realized.  How you get your money into its allocation is nearly as important as what allocation you choose.

Diversification

Diversification is a term you hear a lot.  It basically means making sure all your eggs are not in one basket.  While economic crises can affect all asset classes, in general when one does poorly, another does well.  Thus if you have your money in a variety of areas, you will generally get better returns.  Additionally, this applies to stock and is a compelling reason to buy mutual funds. 

Index Funds

Once you’ve settled on buying mutual funds, index funds are often a very reasonable approach.  Their goal is to roughly match the returns of various well known stock market indexes like the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  By buying into an index fund, you have gotten a tremendous amount of diversity in your stocks.  Additionally because they are essentially unmanaged, you are paying low maintenance fees and not subject to your money manager’s strategy becoming outdated.

Dollar Cost Averaging

Fortunately, for many of us this happens naturally due to the way 401(k) contributions are handled, but for the rest of us this can be very important.  Timing the market is a dicey proposition for experts, so for those of us simply trying to get reasonable returns it is a terrible idea to put all our money into a particular investment vehicle at once.  Instead the goal is to buy a fixed dollar amount of each vehicle every so often, maybe every month.  As a result, you will buy more when the price is lower and less when the price is higher.  This should help prevent catastrophic entry points and your average price should be favorable.

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Investing Step 9: Allocation

Photo by: PinkMoose

This post is step 9 in our Investing Template.

After all your tax-deferred accounts are being used to their maximum potential, it is time to fund any other accounts.  Once that is done, you need to start deciding how to allocate your funds.  This is the problem that many people did not properly address before the real-estate bubble burst and is the most important step to maximizing your returns.

Time Horizon

As we’ve discussed, the first thing you must decide in each account is how soon you will need access to the money.  You need to create an allocation based on this and adjust it accordingly.  Typically the more risky investments will even out over time and give the best returns, but can give horrible returns in the short run.  Thus the sooner you expect to use the funds, the less risky your choices should be.

For example, many people who were expecting to retire soon are suddenly in a state of confusion, because they left their investments in stocks and had massive negative returns.  This can be crippling for someone who was expecting to retire next year.  If they are expecting to retire in 20 years, there’s a good chance their investments will rebound.  However, if your time window is getting close you should be moving to safer, less risky investments, including cash.

Risk Aversion

In addition to the wisdom of avoiding risk when you are getting close to withdrawing funds, some people are very reluctant to put their money at risk at all.  If you are in this class, you should probably look to maximize your returns with very low or no-risk investments.  There are still many options available, even when capital preservation is a high concern.

The Spectrum

Here is a rough guide of some types of investments to consider, from least risky, to most risky:

  •         Short Term Loans to Stable Government Entities
  •         Mid and Long Term Loans to Stable Government Entities
  •         Short Term Loans To Stable (Blue Chip) Companies
  •         Long Term Loans to Stable (Blue Chip) Companies
  •         Real Estate
  •         High-Yield Debt (junk bonds)
  •         Equity (Stocks and Mutual Funds)
  •         Futures and Options

Real estate property has long been considered a safe investment, but recently this has been put into question.  Like any investment vehicle it is more easily navigated by experts and it is also very difficult to diversify.

Futures and options are best left to the pros.  In fact I recommend against even investing in individual stocks.  We’ll talk more about this in the next section.