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Steer Clear of Risky Bond Funds

You can get burned by reaching too high for more yield on investments

JBQ - Risky Junk Bond Funds

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High-yield, or "junk" bond mutual funds, may seem tempting, but they're not worth the risk.

En español | Today's super-low interest rates present enormous temptations to people who invest for income. To raise your game, you're likely to fall, hard, for high-yield "junk" bond mutual funds. These funds look pretty sexy today, with current yields as high as 7-plus percent, when the average intermediate-term government bond fund is yielding 1.9 percent. But they're also naughty and not worth the risk.

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When business goes bad, some of the bonds held by high-yield funds will default or have their credit ratings slashed, causing their prices to fall. That has been happening recently to bonds issued by energy and mining companies. The money you lose from downgrades and defaults could easily cost you more than you're earning from the fund's higher interest rates. In fact, a 2012 study by the Vanguard mutual fund company found that investors in these funds, on average, do not—I repeat, do not—collect the high yields that they expect.

The bonds in high-yield funds are called "junk" for a reason. They're issued by companies with poor ratings for credit quality, BB or below—often way below. That fact will be clearly spelled out in a fund's prospectus under the heading "principal investment strategies." Also, most of the funds have the words "high yield" in their name.

Double losses are possible. When times are good, junk bond funds "lull you into a sense of security," says Larry Swedroe, director of research for the BAM Alliance of financial advisers and author of The Only Guide to a Winning Bond Strategy You'll Ever Need. When times turn bad, junk funds add to your loss.

That's because in bad times, these funds tend to behave like stocks. When the broad market plunges, the prices of high-yield funds capsize, too. If you own both stock funds and junk bond funds in your retirement account, you'll take a double loss.

See also: The 7 Deadly Sins of Personal Finance

As an example, look at what happened over the 12 months ending early in March of this year. The Standard & Poor's index of 500 leading stocks fell 6.18 percent. Morningstar's index of high-yield bond funds followed stocks down, losing an average of 6.73 percent. Some funds are down 12 percent or more.

Junk bond funds don't even help with diversification. Vanguard's study concluded that "high-yield bonds on average would not have improved the risk and return characteristics of a traditional balanced portfolio." In short, you don't need them.

See also: Why Women Make Better Investors

Go for un-sexy As investments. The role of bonds is chiefly to reduce your risk. That's best done by owning the mousy, un-sexy funds you may have overlooked: those that invest in Treasuries and other U.S. government securities. They're yielding nearly zilch. But when stock prices take a tumble, they generally rise in price. Over the 12 months ending in early March, after general alarm spread through the markets, Morningstar's intermediate-term government bond fund average rose 1.54 percent. If you owned both government funds and stocks, the government funds would have reduced your loss. If you want to hold Treasuries to maturity, skip the funds and buy them, free, through TreasuryDirect.gov. If you like the convenience of easy withdrawals, buy the funds.

One other option, for safety first, is FDIC-insured certificates of deposit. You might find a five-year bank CD at around 2 percent, which is more than Treasuries pay. (Look for high-rate CDs at Bankrate.com.)

Just don't kid yourself about bonds that apparently beat the market. There is no free lunch. 

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of How to Make Your Money Last: The Indispensable Retirement Guide and Making the Most of Your Money NOW.

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