iStock / Getty Images
If you rely on interest you earn on your savings to buy groceries, get gas and pay the electric bill, money's probably tight.
Blame it on the puny yields on fixed-income investments like bonds and money market accounts. But despite the low-yield world we live in, you can earn more on your money to help make ends meet — if you're willing to take more risk.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates low to spur growth, making it more challenging to generate income. The Fed's three rate cuts in 2019 haven't helped.
The average annual return on money market accounts is less than 1 percent, and the yield on a 10-year U.S. government bond is about 2 percent. Those returns don't add up to a lot of monthly income, nor do they keep pace with the increase in prices for everyday consumer goods, which rose 2.1 percent in the 12 months that ended in November.
So what's a retiree who counts on income from savings to do?
What you shouldn't do is throw up your hands and assume it's impossible to earn a higher return.
“Look, it's a challenging environment, but it can still be done,” says Mark Freeman, founder and chief investment officer at Socorro Asset Management LP in Dallas. But “it's going to take a different approach."
That different approach means employing a prudent diversification strategy in which you invest in higher-yielding yet more volatile types of bonds, as well as assets not traditionally viewed as income generators, such as dividend-paying stocks.
Here are some fresh approaches to generating income:
Take some risks
The mistake many investors make is thinking the bond portion of their portfolio must be devoid of risk, says Dave King, senior portfolio manager of Columbia Flexible Capital Income Fund (CFIAX) and head of income and growth strategies for Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Boston.
"That's wrong,” King says.
A 10-year Treasury note yields 2 percent. But if you're willing to take more risk, you can earn a higher yield on different types of bonds, he says.
He's not recommending that you invest only in the riskiest bonds with the highest yields.
He's advising you to spread your fixed-income dollars around to a broader menu of bonds, such as investment-grade corporate debt, “higher-quality” junk bonds with lower risk of default, and “convertible” bonds that can be turned into common stock.
You'll have to stomach some short-term market volatility, of course. But those periodic bouts should smooth out over time, and you'll end up with a diversified basket of higher-yielding investments, King says.
Here are some bonds to consider if you're searching for more yield:
Consider ‘higher-quality’ junk
This strategy might sound like an oxymoron, but seeking higher yields in companies whose bonds are rated “junk” — ones that rating agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings put at BB+ or lower — may be worth the higher risk, King says.
"There is definitely potential to buy ‘higher-quality’ junk bonds,” he says.
Some of his fund's current holdings, which King considers good examples, include rental car company Hertz, frozen french fry maker Lamb Weston, and managed health care operator Centene.
"These are all BB-rated bonds yielding [between] 4 percent and 5 percent,” more than twice the yield on 10-year Treasuries, King says. “Does anyone think Hertz is going out of business?"
"It is not very probable” that these companies will default before the bonds his fund owns mature between 2024 and 2027, according to holdings cited on the CFIAX website.
Diversify with municipal bonds
For retirees in higher tax brackets, owning a broad mix of tax-free municipal (muni) bonds is a way to earn a bigger after-tax return than they would get owning a 10-year Treasury, says Alex Vicencio, a chartered financial analyst and private wealth adviser for Wells Fargo Advisors in Miami.
Analyze these areas first
Before making an investment decision, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission has this advice:
1. Look at your entire financial situation.
2. Maintain an emergency fund.
3. Pay off credit card debt.
4. Evaluate your comfort zone.
5. Mix types of investments.
6. Rebalance your portfolio periodically.
7. Avoid situations that can lead to fraud.
Municipalities issue these types of bonds to pay for projects such as repairing roads and remodeling schools. Retirees in the 35 percent tax bracket who are earning 2.5 percent tax-free income on their muni bond investments would need to receive 3.85 percent in taxable returns to earn a comparable amount after taxes, Vicencio estimates.
But putting all your money into your hometown's muni bond is probably not wise. You won't get the protection that investing in a large number of muni bonds issued in different states and from multiple municipalities gives, he says.
Vicencio also recommends creating a “ladder” of maturities. That means having muni bonds coming due every year for the next 15 to 20 years.
That way, if the economy enters a higher-yield environment, you'll have the “opportunity to reinvest the cash at higher yields,” he says. And if rates fall, your overall return is likely to remain fairly stable because you'll likely have money invested in other muni bonds at higher interest rates, which will offset the income loss from reinvesting fresh dollars in bonds with lower yields.
Do it yourself with total bond funds
If you're a do-it-yourself investor, you can boost your income by choosing a total bond fund that invests in virtually every type of bond imaginable, ranging from Treasuries to high-rated corporate bonds to junk. These funds own a broad mix of bonds with different maturities, risk profiles and yields.
While the price of the individual bonds can go up or down, sending yields in the opposite direction, owning so many different types of bonds will smooth out the volatility. You can select from actively managed funds that portfolio managers run, or you can opt for a lower-cost total bond index fund or total bond exchange-traded fund, better known as an ETF, which will give you broad bond market exposure.
"The argument for having a mutual fund that is well-diversified is you have between 100 and 200” different bonds, says Chris Pariseault, head of fixed income and global asset allocation institutional portfolio managers at Fidelity Investments. “You have Treasury securities. You have mortgage-backed, high-yield, leveraged loans and emerging market debt.
"They all have [different] yields and profiles. All of these things, if you believe modern portfolio theory, are supposed to diversify and lower your risk,” he says.
Fees are always a consideration, Pariseault says. The lower the fees you pay, the less drag on your returns.
Add stocks with dividends to balance
Sure, stocks are more volatile than bonds, but equities increasingly are being viewed as a way to generate income. The dividend yield on the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index was 1.8 percent through Dec. 24, putting it on par with the interest on a 10-year Treasury.
And many individual stocks pay much richer dividends. Well-known companies now paying dividends in excess of 5 percent include department store retailer Macy's, automaker Ford and telecom company AT&T, according to S&P Global.
The case for generating income via stocks that pay dividends is that you earn income but also have the potential to profit from capital appreciation.
But don't get fooled into buying only high dividend payers. Those big payouts may come with a greater risk of default.
Buy stocks with a history of boosting their dividends every year, because dividend growth is a signal of financial strength.
"If you get a high, safe dividend yield, you should be willing to take on some risk,” says King, adding that his fund had more than 40 percent of its assets invested in stocks at the end of November. Dividend-paying stocks the fund owned include packaged foods company Conagra Brands, global package deliverer UPS and banking giant Wells Fargo.
For people who need an income stream, equities are an essential component of generating enough income to live on in a low-yield world, says Freeman of Socorro Asset Management.
"Using fixed income alone, you can't get there,” he says.
Freelance writer Adam Shell was a markets and Wall Street reporter for USA Today.