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July 14, 2022
Bonds can be a core, low-risk component of retirement portfolios. However, they do come with one significant risk factor: If interest rates go up, the bonds you already own will plummet in value. A bond ladder strategy can be a way to reduce that particular risk.
A bond is a fairly popular type of investment. However, unlike stocks or equity-based mutual funds where you are buying a portion of a company (or companies), when you buy a bond you are actually lending money to a company or other institution and they are agreeing to pay you the face value of the bond at a predetermined date (maturity date). They will also pay you a predetermined interest rate (coupon rate) over a specified period of time (coupon dates).
In other words, you pretty much know what you are getting back out and when. However, it is important to note that while you know the dollar amount that you will get at maturity, you do not know how much that dollar amount will be able to purchase.
For example, if you know that the bond will pay you $1,000 in five years but the rate of inflation is at 3%, then your $1000 will only be able to buy $800 worth of goods and services at that time. (Though you will also receive interest payments on the bond.)
A bond ladder is a strategy of holding a range of bonds (typically 5-10) of different maturities. For example, the first bond might mature in two years, another bond might mature in four years, the next bond might mature in six years, etc.
This strategy is referred to as a bond ladder because the different components call to mind the pieces of a ladder. Using the metaphor of a bond, each individual bond you own is a rung on the ladder and the time between when each bond matures is the space between each rung.
With a bond ladder, you hold different bonds with different maturity dates and different interest rates. This means that you are not locking yourself into just one interest rate. You have a better chance of being able to capitalize on both rising and falling interest rates by spreading out your maturity dates.
It’s also important to note that the longer the bond maturity date is, the higher the interest rate it typically pays.
A bond ladder offers investors some flexibility and liquidity. Instead of locking up all of your money for a set period of time, a bond ladder enables you to access money at pre-determined junctures (the maturity dates).
Whenever a bond reaches maturity, you have several different choices:
Bond ladders are one way of generating retirement income. For example, if you think that your retirement will last 15 years, with adequate funds you could buy 15 individual bonds – the first maturing in one year and the last maturing in 15 years.
Purchasing a wide variety of bonds helps you to diversify away your risk, while also enjoying a higher overall return.
For retirees, Treasury securities and AAA-rated corporate and/or municipal bonds should make up the bulk of the bond purchases. Since you’ll be living off these investments, having one or more bond issuers default on you could lead to financial catastrophe. Thus, it’s best to keep your portfolio’s risk level on the lower side.
However, a bond ladder does allow you to push your risk level just a little bit. As a rule of thumb, the more you spread out your bond investments over different bond issuers, the lower your overall risk will become. For example, if you only own bonds from five different issuers and one of them defaults, you’d lose 20% of your bond investment. But if you own 200 different bonds, 40 issuers would have to default in order for you to lose 20% of your investment.
By buying multiple bonds from different issuers for each rung of your bond ladder, you can put a small percentage of your money into lower-quality bonds and take advantage of the higher returns these bonds produce (without grossly increasing your risk levels).
The best place for your bond ladder may be inside a tax-advantaged retirement savings account. If you buy bonds as part of a standard brokerage account, you’ll have to pay taxes on the interest that those bonds pay you. But if your bonds are inside a retirement savings account, you don’t have to pay taxes on the interest until you actually withdraw it from the account (and if you have a Roth account, you will never have to pay taxes on it).
However, 3 are exceptions to this rule.
Taxes in retirement can get extremely complicated, especially if you have several different retirement savings accounts and multiple sources of income. If you’re not sure which types of bonds would give you the best tax outcome, consult a professional tax advisor (usually a CPA or an enrolled agent). A good tax expert can save you way more on your taxes than you’ll pay for the benefit of their services.
Bond ladders are fairly straightforward, but they are not always the best way to invest your retirement funds.
If you are interested in pursuing a bond ladder strategy, you’ll want to answer these three questions:
You can play with different variables in the NewRetirement Retirement Planner, to see how different rates of returns and access to cash might impact your overall plan.
However, if you are intrigued by bond ladders, you might want to also discuss the strategy with a financial advisor who may be able to help you assess whether or not it is a good fit for your finances. A financial advisor can also advise you on how to best set it up and manage it over time.
NewRetirement Advisors offers cost efficient access to a Certified Financial Planner (CFP)®. Book a free discovery session to see if you could benefit from professional expertise.
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