Even Better Than Bonds
By ANDREW BARY | MORE ARTICLES BY AUTHOR
With bonds fully priced, it may be time to swap into preferred shares, utility stocks and other investments that produce income but offer protection if interest rates rise.
TIRED OF THE PUNY YIELDS ON YOUR BONDS? Worried that interest rates and inflation will rise, clobbering their prices? Now may be the time to start moving into high-yielding stocks, while scaling back fixed-income holdings.
Bonds rode the price roller coaster up as interest rates fell. They could take a scary plunge if rates shoot up.
This means buying utility and telecom stocks, which have lagged behind the overall stock market this year, as well as master limited partnerships focused on the transportation of natural gas and oil-related products. Other alternatives to traditional bonds include bank preferred stock and convertible securities.
In contrast to bond yields, many of which are near multi-decade lows, yields on these alternatives often run in the 5%-to-9% range. The underlying investments also offer the potential for capital gains and rising income to offset inflation. In addition, income from most of these investments now benefits from favorable tax treatment.
Chuck Lieberman, chief investment officer at Advisors Capital Management, a Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., investment advisor, calls this “investing for income with growth. This strategy offers growth of income and principal, in contrast with a fixed-income portfolio.” Lieberman is partial to master limited partnerships, high-dividend stocks, preferred shares and convertibles. Another alternative to U.S. bonds is foreign sovereign debt, which offers a hedge against a weakening dollar.
Master limited partnerships could be the past decade’s quietest investment success, generating annualized returns of 18%, against 15% for gold and about zilch for the Standard & Poor’s 500. While the MLP market has rallied sharply this year, major operators like Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (ticker: KMP), Enterprise Products Partners (EPD) and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners (BWP) still yield 7% to 8% and have good growth prospects.
Bill Gross, the managing director of Pimco, the giant bond manager, wrote recently in his monthly commentary that electric-utility stocks looked attractive. He noted that their dividend yields now exceed those on utility bonds, while offering the added benefit of more favorable tax treatment than bond interest. “Growth in earnings should mimic the U.S. economy as it always has, and importantly, utilities yield 5% to 6%, not 0.01%,” Gross wrote, the 0.01% yield referring to the pitifully low yields on money-market funds.
The two major U.S. telecom operators, Verizon Communications (VZ) and AT&T (T), have trailed the S&P this year and their shares yield more than 6%. Preferred stock from Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo yield 8% to 9%. Those yields are down from the teens at the market’s bottom in March, but still look attractive, given the banks’ improving balance sheets and a recovering economy.
Many investors view the stock market as a minefield and the bond market as a haven. But at very low yield levels, bonds become dangerous. “If there is a little bit of a bubble somewhere, it’s in the bond market,” Lieberman says.
The “safest” part of the market, Treasuries, seems to be the most overvalued, and high-grade corporate bonds don’t look much better. Treasury yields range from just 0.85% on two-year notes to 4.4% on 30-year bonds, while high-grade corporates generally offer 3% to 5%. Federally backed mortgage securities also look unattractive at 4% yields. These securities are apt to return little or nothing after inflation and taxes.
While investors are apt to have their principal repaid if they hold their bonds until they mature, they will suffer losses if rates rise and they sell prior to maturity. As for investors in bond funds, they typically have no guarantee of getting their money back. And the funds often levy stiff management fees on their holdings.
Vanguard is an exception, but even with the help of low fees, its big mortgage and muni funds don’t yield much. Both the $37 billion Vanguard GNMA Fund (VFIIX) and the $26 billion Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX) yield about 3%. These funds carry annual expenses of less than one-quarter of a percentage point, roughly a quarter of what their rivals charge. It’s tough to justify taking a fee of a percentage point for a fund invested in 3% or 4% securities, but many fund companies do.
Low yields haven’t prevented a stampede into bond funds, which have had more than $40 billion in net inflows during each of the past three months from risk-averse investors who have been pulling money from domestic stock funds.
The Treasury and mortgage markets look particularly vulnerable because they are being supported by the Federal Reserve’s keeping short rates near zero and by its purchases of these securities. The Fed’s $1.25 trillion program to buy mortgage securities is due to end March 31.
Essentially, bond investors are giving cheap money to American business, the Treasury, new home buyers and overleveraged homeowners. The game may end badly for bondholders because rates are apt to rise in 2010 and 2011 from what appear to be artificially low levels.
The municipal market, a favorite of individual investors, looks overpriced for maturities of under 10 years, where yields are under 3%, and fairly priced for long-term maturities, where yields are around 5%. To get yields close to 6%, investors must buy dicier debt like that of California.
Many investors are chasing the junk-bond market, but the 50%-plus returns seen there this year will be unattainable in 2010, because yields have dropped to an average of 8% from 20% at the start of 2009. Yields on money-market funds are at or near zero, effectively resulting in a confiscation of investor money after inflation.
Real-estate investment trusts have attracted yield seekers, too. But REITs, up nearly 50% in the past 12 months, are no longer a bargain. Green Street Advisors, a Newport Beach, Calif., advisory firm, recently termed them “pricey,” in part on high valuations based on earnings relative to the S&P 500. Public-market values of real estate also are high compared with those in the private market. REIT dividend yields are averaging just 4%, and fundamentals in many sectors, including apartments and office buildings, look weak. Net operating income could fall in 2010 for the second straight year.
With all that in mind, here’s a look at some sectors that do provide decent yield alternatives to traditional bonds:
MASTER LIMITED PARTNERSHIPS: This $100 billion group is dominated by companies like Kinder Morgan, Enterprise Products and Magellan Midstream (MMP), which transport natural gas, jet fuel, heating oil, gasoline and other petroleum products.
Despite generating some of the best returns of any asset class in the past decade, MLPs are unfamiliar to most investors. That ought to change, because MLPs now provide 7%-to-8% dividend yields, and much of that income is tax-deferred. Dividend growth could run in the mid- to-high-single-digit range in the coming years, resulting in total annual returns above 10%. Kinder Morgan, one of the largest pipeline MLPs, recently said it will pay $4.40 in distributions in 2010, up 5% from 2009’s level. Its shares, at 56, yield 7.8%, based on the expected 2010 distribution.
“Think of an analogy to toll roads,” suggests Lieberman. “Pipelines are expensive to build, but operating costs are relatively low, which means they generate outstanding cash flow that services debt and finances sizable distributions to owners.” Pipelines are utility-like because their rates often are set by federal regulators.
Pipeline shares were slammed in late 2008 because of concern about reduced access to the capital markets. MLPs rely on equity and debt financing for expansion, as they typically pay out nearly all their annual cash flow in dividends. The fears about market access didn’t materialize and the stocks have come roaring back with the Alerian MLP Index (AMZ) up 65% in 2009 (with dividends included).
For many large master limited partnerships, 70% or more of their dividends — technically distributions — are tax-deferred. That’s because dividends usually are far greater than reported net income, largely as a result of noncash depreciation expenses.
Let’s say an MLP pays a $2 annual dividend, 80% of which is tax-deferred. An investor would owe income taxes on only 40 cents of that dividend (but the 40 cents would be taxed at regular-income rates, not the preferential dividend rate). The other $1.60 wouldn’t be taxed and instead would reduce the investor’s cost. If the investor paid $25 a share for an MLP, the cost basis would be reduced to $23.40. Taxes would be paid on the $1.60 when the shares are sold.
Many investors — particularly the elderly — simply hold MLP shares, with the intention of putting them in their estates. This essentially results in permanent tax deferral and a muni-like income stream, if the investor’s estate isn’t subject to federal inheritance taxes. Taxes on the sale of a long-held MLP can be high because an investor’s cost basis can drop toward zero after many years of dividends.
MLPs are best held in taxable accounts: they can cause tax headaches in IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts. Investors need to know that they will get an annual K-1 tax form, not a standard 1099, and that can complicate annual filings. Another wrinkle: MLPs often share annual income gains with general partners, or GPs, some of which are publicly traded. This can limit dividend increases. Magellan Midstream has an advantage because it has combined its limited and general partners, meaning there is no GP to cut into the income allocated to the limited partners.
Utilities: Because they’re seen as defensive, utility stocks have trailed the market. The Dow Jones Utilities Average has risen just 4% this year, versus a 22% gain for the S&P 500. But investors are warming to utilities, which rose 3% last week.
Until recently, the sector has been held back by various factors, including reduced power consumption, that have dampened profits at Midwestern utilities like First Energy (FE) and American Electric Power (AEP) that have a lot of industrial customers. Another negative has been the plunge in natural-gas prices, which has reduced the price advantage that nuclear utilities like Exelon (EXC) had over gas-fired rivals.
Regulated utilities, such as American Electric Power (AEP), Duke Energy (DUK), PG&E (PCG), Consolidated Edison (ED) and Southern Co. (SO), trade around 13 times projected 2009 profits and roughly 12 times estimated 2010 net, a discount to the S&P 500. “This is a safe level of valuation, and a lot of bad news already is discounted,” says Hugh Wynne, utility analyst at Sanford Bernstein. Wynne, who notes that utility dividend yields average close to 5%, favors laggards such as Exelon and FirstEnergy, as well as PG&E.
PG&E, at 43, trades for 13 times projected 2010 profits of $3.42 a share. The other big California utility, Edison International (EIX), also looks appealing, trading near 35, or 10 times next year’s estimated earnings. Bulls argue that the company’s regulated utility business is worth almost as much as the stock price and that investors effectively are paying little for its independent power division, Edison Mission Group, whose profits have been hit by weak power prices.
As an alternative to individual stocks, investors can buy the Utilities Select Sector SPDR (XLU), an ETF that trades around 31 and yields 4.1%. Several closed-end funds focus on utilities. One is Cohen & Steers Select Utility (UTF), which at its recent price near 15 — an 11% discount to its underlying net asset value — was yielding 6%.
TELECOM SHARES: Verizon and AT&T have perked up lately, although their slight losses this year leave them way behind the market. The telecom business faces greater challenges than electric utilities because Americans continue to cut the cord to wireline phones, eroding a once-lucrative business. Yet both companies remain financially solid, trade for low valuations, carry juicy dividends around 6% and are strong players in the wireless market. Reflecting its control of the country’s top wireless operation, Verizon, at 32, trades for about 13 times projected 2010 profits of $2.45 a share. AT&T, at 28, fetches 11 times estimated 2010 cash earnings of $2.50, which exclude about 25 cents of goodwill amortization from acquisitions.
Other high-yielders among big companies include major drug companies Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Merck (MRK) and Eli Lilly (LLY), as well as cigarette makers like Altria Group (MO) and Lorillard (LO). They yield anywhere from 4% to 7%.
PREFERRED STOCK: This market was hit in 2008 by multiple shocks, including the bankruptcy of preferred issuer Lehman Brothers, the banking industry’s troubles and the government’s surprise decision against protecting preferred shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, when Uncle Sam effectively seized those mortgage agencies. Fannie and Freddie preferred trade for about five cents on the dollar.
After bottoming in March, preferreds have surged, with most yields dropping to 6% to 9%. “Preferred stock is subject to the same inflation problem as bonds,” Lieberman says. “But yields are significantly higher. That provides sufficient compensation…for the lack of inflation protection.”
Citigroup’s trust preferred securities, like its Series C, yield more than 9%. Bank of America’s 7.25% Series J preferred trades around 21, for a yield of 8.60%, and Wells Fargo’s 7.50% Series L preferred trades near 900 for an 8% yield. The Wells Fargo issue has a face value of $1,000, as opposed to $25 for most preferreds.
JPMorgan’s preferred has lower yields, just under 7%, reflecting Wall Street’s favorable view of the bank. Many foreign banks have issued preferreds; Lieberman likes Barclays, whose preferred yields about 8.5%. Among REITs, the largest preferred issuer is Public Storage, owner of self-storage facilities. Its preferred yields more than 7% and looks pretty safe, given the company’s solid balance sheet.
There are two types of preferred. Regular preferred is a senior form of equity, while trust preferred is junior debt and is senior to regular preferred. Therefore it is safer, but it generally yields less. The advantage of regular preferred is that its payouts are taxed at the preferential dividend rate of 15%, while trust-preferred dividends are taxed as ordinary income.
CONVERTIBLE SECURITIES: These hybrid securities, which can be converted into common shares under preset conditions, were battered in 2008 by a weak stock market, the junk-bond market’s collapse and forced sales by leveraged convertible hedge funds. But convertibles have risen sharply this year, with Putnam and Fidelity convertible mutual funds up 50% to 60%. The catalysts: the sharp rally in the shares of the generally more speculative companies that issue converts and the junk market’s big gains..
This makes for slimmer picking than in early 2009, when investors could get 10% to 15% yields on reasonably solid converts. Be forewarned: It’s tougher to buy converts than preferred stock because many convertible bonds are traded in an over-the-counter market where bid/offer spreads can be wide for individuals buying $25,000 to $100,000 of the securities. Convertible funds are a better bet for most investors.
For those willing to do their own work, converts can be an attractive lower-risk alternative to common stock, while offering much of common’s appreciation potential.
The money-losing airline industry has needed to raise capital and their converts carry lower rates than regular debt. Issuers include USAirways Group, UAL (parent of United Airlines), Continental Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
Chip maker Micron Technology has a 1.875% issue trading around 85, yielding 5% with a hefty conversion premium of 50%.
One way to play Ford is via its Series S convertible preferred stock, which trades around 36. Ford stopped paying dividends on that issue this year, but some investors are betting the reviving auto maker may resume the payout in 2010 and give investors unpaid dividends of more than $1.50 a share. If Ford resumes the $3.25 annual dividend, the yield would be 9%. The car maker must pay the preferred dividend if it wants to resume a common dividend.
In sum, while hardly anything is as cheap or attractive as it was earlier this year, MLPs, utility stocks, preferred and converts offer appealing alternatives to increasingly unattractive bonds.