Bonds are finally an intriguing place for retirement income.
Safe Treasuries still pay a respectable (by their standards, at least) 3.7%. But we contrarians can do better.
Today we’re going to discuss three bond funds ready to rally. They pay 8.6%, 9.1% and—get this—9.6% per year.
Those are not typos. These are fat freaking yields.
Yes, These Bond Yields Are Real. And They Are Spectacular.
And even better still, you can buy these bonds for as low as 90 cents on the dollar! How is that? Well, the cheapest fund trades for just 90% of its net asset value (NAV).
It’s NAV is the street price of the safe bonds it owns. If the fund liquidated today, it would fetch 100% of NAV. But it’s a bear market, so bargains abound. And we can buy it for just 90% of NAV—or 90 cents on the dollar.
Why? Let’s thank our intrepid Fed.
The Fed Gamble
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Bonds have taken an absolute beating in 2022 amid a year’s worth of aggressive Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes—part of Chair Jerome Powell’s action plan to extinguish raging inflation.
For example, the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (IEF IEF ), a proxy for medium-duration bonds, currently sits near decade-plus lows amid a 15% drop year-to-date. That might not sound like much compared to the beating stocks are taking, but that’s as precipitous a decline as you could reasonably fear in mid-length bonds.
I stress “near” because bonds have been rallying of late. A temporary snap-back? Maybe. But it comes amid budding, albeit uneven, optimism over the past month or so that maybe, just maybe, the Fed’s rate hiking is about to slow.
Just a week ago, the Fed released minutes from its most recent FOMC meeting showing that a “substantial majority” of the central bank’s officials believe it would “likely soon be appropriate” to slow its rate hikes.
And on Wednesday, Powell added more credence to the idea, saying smaller rate increases “may come as soon as the December meeting.”
Bonds aren’t a monolith, either. Short-term and long-term rates can indeed move in different directions, and that matters when determining your bond-buying strategy. Recall what I said a few weeks ago:
“The ‘short end’ (maturities closer to today) of the yield curve is grinding higher because the Fed head has said he has more work to do. Over time, the 2-year Treasury tends to lead the Fed Funds Rate because it anticipates the Fed’s next move. … The ‘long end’ (maturities farther away) of the yield curve, meanwhile, is catching its breath while it weighs the lesser of two evils: inflation today or a recession tomorrow.”
If we are at a point where, perhaps, Powell doesn’t have as much work to do as before, that could be an inflection point for short-term bond rates—and an inflection point for shorter-maturity bond funds.
In other words, the window might be closing on our chance to buy low.
Fortunately, we can make the most of that opportunity by buying not bond mutual funds or bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs), but bond closed-end funds (CEFs). That’s because, in addition to buying while short-term bonds are against the ropes, many of these CEFs are also trading for below their net asset value, meaning we’re buying the bonds for even cheaper than we could by purchasing them individually.
While the fate of these funds is ultimately up to the Fed, here are three intriguing opportunities right now: 3 CEFs yielding 8.6%-9.6% that are trading at high-single-digit and low-double-digit discounts to NAV:
PGIM Short Duration High Yield Opportunities Fund (SDHY)
Distribution Yield: 8.6%
Discount to NAV: 10.1%
As crazy as it might sound, you can wrest a nearly 9% yield—paid monthly, no less—from a bond portfolio with an average maturity of less than three years!
The PGIM Short Duration High Yield Opportunities Fund (SDHY) is a relatively new fund with inception in November 2020, so most of its short life has been spent weebling and wobbling. SDHY invests primarily in below-investment-grade fixed income, and it will typically maintain a weighted average portfolio duration of three years or less and a weighted average maturity of five years or less—the latter is considerably shorter than its target right now, at 2.9 years.
The short maturity helps tamp down on volatility, but SDHY is hardly your average short-term bond fund, including quite a bit more movement.
SDHY packs a mean yield punch in part because of its low credit quality. Just 11% of its portfolio is investment-grade; another 34% is in BB debt (the top tier of junk), and another 35% is in B-graded bonds.
Also helping is a decent amount of debt leverage—17% at last check, which isn’t exceptionally high, but still a fair amount of extra juice to performance and yield.
That juice works both ways, hampering SDHY’s performance during a bear climate for bonds. But clearly, given its performance of late, it has significant potential once the Fed starts slowing its hike pace (and especially once it actually throttles back rates).
Also alluring is a nearly 10% discount to NAV, implying that you’re buying SDHY’s bonds for 90 cents on the dollar. Granted, that’s not much more than its historical discount since inception of 10.3%, but it’s still a bargain no matter which way you slice it.
Western Asset High Income Opportunity (HIO)
Distribution Yield: 9.1%
Discount to NAV: 8.9%
The Western Asset High Income Opportunity (HIO) is a little farther along the maturity spectrum, at an average of 7.3 years, but it’s another compelling high-yield play that’s worth eyeballing in the current environment.
HIO is a classic junk-bond fund whose management team scouts out particularly attractive values. But focus on value doesn’t translate into more credit risk than its contemporaries—sure, its BB exposure of 34% is far less than its benchmark (50%), but that’s countered by some investment-grade debt (2% A, 13% B). (The rest of the portfolio is similar to its benchmark.)
Also, while this CEF is allowed to use leverage, it currently doesn’t. So the higher-than-junk-average yield you see (also paid monthly!) is simply a result of its management’s bond selections.
Despite not using leverage, this CEF’s performance is much more volatile than plain-jane ETFs—historically for the better, though the past year has been miserable for shareholders.
HIO’s 8.9% discount to NAV is attractive, at least in a vacuum—but it’s something of a wash considering that, on average over the past five years, the fund has traded at a 9.1% discount.
BlackRock Credit Allocation Income Trust (BTZ)
Distribution Yield: 9.6%
Discount to NAV: 5.7%
There’s hardly “a final word” with this Fed. Yes, Powell gave his strongest signal yet that rate hikes will slow down. But the Fed has already surprised some economists with its aggression on rate hikes and other quantitative tightening—and if high inflation persists, short-term bonds could remain in the doghouse longer than expected.
But longer-dated fixed income, especially with decent credit quality, could do OK.
The BlackRock Credit Allocation Income Trust (BTZ), which invests primarily in bonds but also other fixed income such as securitized products and bank loans, is an interesting choice here—one with an excellent track record, especially if you can stomach some deeper valleys along with those higher peaks.
BTZ’s average portfolio maturity is a hair over 18 years—not quite at the 20-year threshold for “long,” but plenty long nonetheless. Credit quality is an optimal blend, however: 55% is investment-grade (most, 42%, in BBB-graded bonds), another 22% in top junk tier BB, and most of the rest in B- and C-rated bonds.
This fund is an ideal example of how CEFs benefit from active management and more tools to work with. Managers can hunt down value-priced bonds rather than just plugging in whatever an index tells them to, and they’re also able to scour the credit world for other appealing instruments at times when bonds aren’t the top play.
Also, BTZ is at the high end of the leverage-use spectrum, at more than 28% currently. That can weigh on performance given a high cost of debt, but it can also drastically improve performance in a bond upswing—and that’s how its monthly payout stretches to nearly 10%!
My only gripe right now? BTZ isn’t much of a bargain right now, with its roughly 5.7% discount to NAV coming in higher than its 5-year average of around 8%.
But it still beats buying these bonds individually.
Brett Owens is chief investment strategist for Contrarian Outlook. For more great income ideas, get your free copy his latest special report: Your Early Retirement Portfolio: Huge Dividends—Every Month—Forever.
Bonds See 2023 Recession, Stocks Aren’t So Sure
The yield curve is one of the most robust recession predictors and has signaled a recession may be coming since mid 2022. In contrast, U.S. stocks as measured by the S&P 500 are up materially from the lows of last October and only just below year-to-date highs, seemingly rejecting recession fears. Yet, fixed income markets see the Fed potentially cutting rates by the summer, perhaps reacting to a U.S. recession.
The Evidence From The Bond Markets
The recessionary evidence, at least from fixed income markets, is mounting. The 10 yield Treasury yield has been below the 2 year yield consistently since last July. That is is called an inverted yield curve and has signaled a recession fairly reliably when compared to other leading indicators.
Building on that, fixed income markets see almost a nine in ten chance that the Federal Reserve cuts rates by September of this year. That’s something the Fed has repeatedly said they won’t do on their current forecasts. Yet, a recession could cause it to happen.
The Stock Market
In contrast, the stock market shows some optimism. The S&P 500 is up 7% year-to-date as the market has shrugged off fears of contagion from recent banking issues. In particular, tech stocks have rallied.
In contrast, more defensive sectors such as healthcare, utilities and consumer goods have lagged in 2023. This suggests that the stock market is taking more of a ‘risk on’ position and is perhaps less worried about the economy.
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That said the stock market is a leading indicator of the business cycle, it may be that stocks see a recession, but are now looking past it to growth ahead and are factoring in the lower discount rates that a recession might bring as interest rates decline. Also, the U.S. stock market is relatively global, so the fate of the U.S. economy is a key factor in driving profits, but not the only one.
Monitoring unemployment data will be key. Though the yield curve is a good long-term forecaster of recessions it is less precise in signaling when a recession starts. Unemployment rates can offer more accurate recession timing. Unemployment edged up in February, suggesting a recession may be near, but we’ve also seen monthly noise unemployment. Two similar monthly unemployment spikes during 2022 both proved false alarms.
However, if we see a sustained move up in unemployment from the low levels of 2022 that may be a relatively clear sign that a recession is here. Economist Claudia Sahm estimates that a sustained 0.5% increase in unemployment rate from 12-month lows is sufficient to trigger a recession. Unemployment rose 0.2% from January to February 2023, so maybe we’re on the way there. Of course, the jobs market performed better than expected in 2022 and it could do so again. Still, fixed income markets do suggest a 2023 recession is coming. Stock markets don’t necessarily share that view.
Which States Have The Highest And Lowest Life Expectancies?
There’s a wide variance of life expectancies among the 50 states in the U.S., according to a recent report prepared by Assurance, an insurance technology platform that helps consumers with decisions related to insurance and financial well-being.
Figure 1 below shows the 10 states with the highest life expectancy, starting with Hawaii, the state with the highest life expectancy.
Figure 2 below shows the 10 states with the lowest life expectancy, starting with Mississippi, the state with the lowest life expectancy.
Assurance scoured life expectancy data prepared in January 2023 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With this data, Assurance created several easy-to-understand graphics that offer information about life expectancies.
Life expectancies are a basic measure of well-being
As measured by the CDC, life expectancies are a basic measurement of well-being in a broad population and not a prediction of how long an individual might live. The CDC measures the expected lifespan for a person born in the year of measurement. This measurement is calculated based on the assumption that the individual will live and die according to the rates of death that are prevalent in the measurement year for each age. There’s no assumed improvement or backsliding in the assumed mortality rates in future years for each age in the life expectancy calculation.
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By contrast, an estimated lifespan for an individual would consider their current age, their gender, and some basic lifestyle information. It might also attempt to project future improvements or backsliding in mortality rates based on key factors.
Significant influences on life expectancy calculations
Leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, and accidents in that order. These immediate causes are significantly influenced by factors in the population such as poverty rates, educational attainment, rates of obesity and smoking, access to healthcare, prevalence of violent crime, and the support people receive from federal, state, and local governments. All these factors can vary widely among different states, which can be a key reason why life expectancies vary by state.
When you think about it, all these factors also have the potential to influence a person’s quality of life. The measured life expectancy rate rolls up all these factors into one objective measurement of well-being that’s based on population data.
In addition to the factors listed above, mortality rates increased and life expectancies decreased in the past few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent article titled “Live Free And Die” summarized recent research results that show that life expectancies in most countries around the world rebounded after the Covid-19 pandemic but that they continued to decline in the United States. Many of the reasons cited in the article for the continued decline in U.S. life expectancies are the same or similar to the factors listed above.
Why should retirees care about the life expectancies reported here if these measures don’t predict your own lifespan? Life expectancy calculations indicate the general well-being of the entire population in your area. While the living conditions in your area can influence your own lifespan and quality of life, retirees should focus on their remaining life expectancy given their age. They should also consider how the factors listed above that influence life expectancies in the population might apply to them.
You can obtain customized estimates of your remaining life expectancy at the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator. Part of your planning for retirement is understanding how long you an an individual might live, instead of relying on generalized information about larger populations you see in the media.
IRS Dirty Dozen Campaign Warns Taxpayers To Avoid Offer In Compromise ‘Mills’
Owing taxes can be stressful. Unfortunately, the actions of some companies can make it worse. As part of its “Dirty Dozen” campaign, the IRS has renewed a warning about so-called Offer in Compromise “mills” that often mislead taxpayers into believing they can settle a tax debt for pennies on the dollar—while the companies collective excessive fees.
The “Dirty Dozen” is an annual list of common scams taxpayers may encounter. Many of these schemes peak during tax filing season as people prepare their returns or hire someone to help with their taxes. The schemes put taxpayers and tax professionals at risk of losing money, personal information, data, and more.
Tax Debt Resolution Schemes
“Too often, we see some unscrupulous promoters mislead taxpayers into thinking they can magically get rid of a tax debt,” said IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel.
“This is a legitimate IRS program, but there are specific requirements for people to qualify. People desperate for help can make a costly mistake if they clearly don’t qualify for the program. Before using an aggressive promoter, we encourage people to review readily available IRS resources to help resolve a tax debt on their own without facing hefty fees.”
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Offers In Compromise
Legitimate is a key word. Offers in Compromise are an important program to help people who can’t pay to settle their federal tax debts. But, as the IRS notes, these “mills” can aggressively promote Offers in Compromise—OIC—in misleading ways to people who don’t meet the qualifications, frequently costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
An OIC allows you to resolve your tax obligations for less than the total amount you owe. You generally submit an OIC because you don’t believe you owe the tax, you can’t pay the tax, or exceptional circumstances exist.
Because of the nature of the OIC—and the dollars involved—the process can be time-consuming. It can also be confusing for taxpayers who may not have a complete grasp on their finances.
First, you must complete a detailed application, Form 656, Offer in Compromise. You must also submit Form 433-A, Collection Information Statement for Wage Earners and Self-Employed Individuals, or Form 433-B, Collection Information Statement for Businesses, with supporting documentation (generally, bank and brokerage statements and proof of expenses).
You’ll also need to submit a non-refundable fee of $205 and payment made in good faith. The payment is typically 20% of the offer amount for a lump sum cash offer or the first month’s payment for those made over time. Generally, initial payments will not be returned but will be applied to your tax debt if your offer is not accepted. Payments and fees may be waived if the OIC is submitted based solely on the premise that you do not owe the tax or if your total monthly income falls at or below income levels based on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) poverty guidelines.
The IRS will examine your application and decide whether to accept it based on many things, including the total amount due and the time remaining to collect under the statute of limitations. The IRS will also review your income—including future earnings and accounts receivables—and your reasonable expenses, as determined by their formula. The IRS will also consider the amount of equity you have in assets that you own—this would include real property, personal property (like automobiles), and bank accounts.
Before your offer can be considered, you must be compliant. That means you must have filed all your tax returns and paid off any liabilities not subject to the OIC. After you submit your offer, you must continue to timely file your tax returns, and pay all required tax, including estimated tax payments. If you don’t, the IRS will return your offer.
Additionally, you cannot currently be in an open bankruptcy proceeding, and you must resolve any open audit or outstanding innocent spouse claim issues before you submit an offer.
You can probably tell—it’s a lot to consider. You may want representation. A tax professional can help marshal you through the process and offer practical guidance, while communicating what fees could look like.
By contrast, according to the IRS, an OIC “mill” will usually make outlandish claims, frequently in radio and TV ads, about how they can settle a person’s tax debt for cheap. Also telling: the fees tend to be significant in exchange for very little work.
Those mills also knowingly advise indebted taxpayers to file an OIC application even though the promoters know the person will not qualify, costing taxpayers money and time. You can check your eligibility for free using the IRS’s Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool.
“Pennies On A Dollar”
What about those promises that taxpayers can routinely settle for pennies on a dollar? Not true. Generally, the IRS will not accept an offer if they believe you can pay your tax debt in full through an installment agreement or equity in assets, including your home. That’s why the IRS tends to reject a majority of OICs that are submitted. The acceptance rate is less than 1 in 3, according to the 2021 Data Book.
The IRS will generally approve an OIC when the amount offered represents the best opportunity for the IRS to collect the debt. It’s true that there’s a formula that the IRS uses to figure out how much they think they can collect from you. But there is some wiggle room to account for special circumstances, including a loss of income or a medical condition. It’s worth noting those are the exceptions, not the rule.
While submitting an OIC may keep the IRS from calling you, it doesn’t stop all collections activities—don’t believe companies that suggest that submitting an OIC will make your tax debt disappear. Penalties and interest will continue to accrue on your outstanding tax liability. Additionally, the IRS may keep your tax refund, including interest, through the date the IRS accepts your OIC.
You may also be liened. In most cases, the IRS will file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien to protect their interests, and the lien will generally stay in place until your tax obligation is satisfied.
An OIC is a serious effort to resolve tax debt and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Be skeptical—if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. If you’re considering an OIC, hire a competent tax professional who understands the rules and is willing to level with you about your chances of being successful—including other options. Don’t fall into a trap that can make your situation worse.
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