Whether you are doing it on a stock, bond, or fund basis, the highest-yielding securities in a peer group are usually the highest risk. The market is awfully efficient at finding values in yield, so if something has a big yield, watch out.
For mutual funds, we worry when we see a fund with a yield that's, say, 200 basis points or more above peers and benchmark. Of course, it varies from category to category, but big yields are a big red flag. The best way to view yield when you are looking for warning signs is to add the expense ratio back to the yield so that you have the portfolio yield. Expenses are subtracted from portfolio income before anything is paid out, so they detract from yield by their full amount. Thus, high-cost funds with big yields are often taking on even more risk than their yield might suggest, while low-cost funds might be taking less risk.
What makes the big-yielding funds particularly tricky is that they can have years of fairly steady returns that mask their underlying risks. In 2007, I wrote that Oppenheimer's muni funds, including Oppenheimer Rochester Municipals Fund , were not all that great despite their strong 10-year returns. A number of brokers wrote in to say that was ridiculous. Then, in 2008, the funds' highly credit-sensitive and leveraged portfolios got thumped, thanks in part to exposure to a number of particularly hard-hit parts of the muni market, including tobacco-settlement and land-secured bonds.
There are a few ways to boost a fund's yield. Most of them are legitimate tactics when used wisely by skilled managers, but others are way too much risk for the average investor. A big yield is a sign that it has crossed the line.
Let's examine the techniques to boost yield so you will know what to look for. Be sure to read our analysis on each fund for a more complete discussion of risk and strategy.
On its face, this is straightforward. Funds can borrow up to 30% of assets, and of course that boosts yield (and fee income) by 30%, too. Closed-end funds are much more likely to use leverage, because they can issue preferred shares to fund their borrowing. But even open-end funds can go beyond that limit because some financial instruments have built-in leverage.
Leverage can also be a warning sign about liquidity problems, as funds under the gun sometimes borrow in order to meet redemptions. Occasional use in bank-loan funds isn't such a bad idea because bank loans are slow to settle, but it is still a sign that things are being run without much slack. More-conservative bank-loan funds make sure to hold enough in cash and cashlike instruments so that they don't have to borrow.
Mutual funds require daily liquidity: Investors can buy or sell any day that markets are open and are entitled to a fair price reflecting the portfolio's value at end of day. That's a piece of cake for large-cap equities and Treasuries, which trade in such volumes that it's quite easy for a fund to buy or sell all it needs in a day or two. But some bonds rarely trade because they are fairly small issues and may not have much published research on them. When credit markets turn stormy, these bonds can be hard to sell without taking sharp losses.
This is true particularly among small high-yield issues and nonrated muni bonds. In the credit crunch, however, many once-liquid bonds, such as mortgages not backed by the government, saw their liquidity disappear.
Third Avenue Focused Credit is a more recent example of how this can go wrong. Most high-yield funds focus primarily on bonds that are expected to pay in full, issued by borrowers who are current on their principal and interest payments. In contrast, this fund invested heavily in distressed names, with the portfolio dominated by nonrated fare and bonds rated below B. It was also willing to hold large positions in individual names. In short, it was pushing the limits of what an open-end fund with daily liquidity would do, and it got burned. As the high-yield market was hit hard in late 2015 thanks to a sharp drop in energy prices, its performance cratered. When redemptions surged, the fund announced it wouldn't be able to meet them. It is only now wrapping up the unwinding of its holdings. Fortunately, very few funds push the boundaries as much as this one.
Return of Capital
This is an old-school way to boost income. You take an investor's money, and you give it back to them so that they think it is yield when it isn't. A checking account would be better because you wouldn't be paying someone 90 basis points to do it. For the most part, this practice has gone away, but it still pops up, mainly in closed-end funds and Gabelli funds. While this practice doesn't increase the risk of a loss, it does erode principal so that, in dollar terms, your income will not keep pace with that of a fund actually generating an equal yield.
This one is pretty simple. A fund buys longer-dated bonds, and it can get a little more yield. Duration provides a good measure of a fund's interest-rate risk. I would caution, though, that interest rates have declined for so long that it's easy to miss the fact that a fund is packing a lot of interest-rate risk.
This is by far the most common way to boost yield, but it isn't as easy to spot as interest-rate risk. Big doses of credit risk, which also often come hand in hand with less liquidity, can actually mute volatility, and there isn't one simple measure like duration that captures how much credit risk a fund is taking. However, yield is a pretty clear indicator here. The median high-yield fund has a 30-day (SEC) yield of 4.5%, but some funds have yields well north of 6%.
It's been a long time since our last credit meltdown, so it's easy to miss just how much an aggressive high-yield fund can lose. Highland Opportunistic Credit has an enticing 7.5% yield, for example, but it lost about half its value in 2008 and was down 26% in 2015. But credit risk is something we see in nearly every bond category, as managers will seek to boost returns in even the most mundane-sounding funds.
As I mentioned, most bond funds are very diversified by issuer because most bond-fund investors want steady performance as well as daily liquidity. When funds do allow big weightings of 4% or more, especially in bonds with more credit risk, their returns can be lumpier and an individual default can result in considerable pain. You can check a fund's issue risk level by looking at the largest bond positions and the total number of holdings. It's not a perfect system, though, because a fund will often own more than one bond from some issuers.
Some of our favorite and least favorite bond funds illustrate the differences between the good kind of aggressiveness and the bad.
, which has a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Neutral, is really committed to its $0.07 per share monthly dividend. The fund has been returning capital for years to meet that goal. When that wasn't enough, the fund enacted a reverse stock split so that it gave shareholders a de facto 50% dividend cut all the while maintaining that $0.07 per share payout. Morningstar analyst Chris Franz tells me that 11 Gabelli closed-end funds practice return of capital, as does one more open-end fund from the firm, Gabelli Equity Income
Negative-rated Ivy High Income
takes on credit and liquidity risk in ways that give us concern. The fund has a hefty 6.6% 30-day yield in part because of a 30% weighting in the very junky CCC credit bin. We're also worried that the fund invests a fair amount in small-issue-size deals, which have limited liquidity. The fund also bets a lot on favorite names, with 6% in Altice NV. The fund lost more than 90% of its peers in the credit sell-off of 2015.
Salient Select Income
ticks just about every box: It packs credit risk, liquidity risk, leverage, and interest-rate risk. At least it isn't returning capital. The Negative-rated fund's stock in trade is preferred shares of REITs, as well as REITs themselves, and high yield from REITs. Half of the fund's preferreds are nonrated--a sign of significant credit risk and liquidity risk, as nonrateds tend not to trade quickly. Because of those liquidity issues, management has used leverage at times to manage flows. Leverage is typically in the 10%-15% range but has reached 30%. The fund's 1.75% expense ratio makes it almost a certainty the fund has to take on a lot of risk to produce a decent yield.
We don't cover Fairholme Focused Income anymore, but it's interesting for having perhaps the most issue risk of any bond fund, with 10% in Sears debt, 10% in Imperial Metals debt, 12% in Seritage Growth Properties (Sears' REIT spin-off), and a bunch in Fannie and Freddie preferreds. On the plus side, Bruce Berkowitz does at least protect a bit against liquidity problems by having 26% in cash.
Negative-rated Salient Tactical Muni & Credit is another fund teeming with issue risk. PIMCO took over in 2013 and brought Puerto Rico exposure down to less than 2% from 25% (phew!). But the fund has a few issues at 4% or more of the portfolio, and it has a big Treasury short position. Fees of 1.70% will scare you off if the rest didn't.
Finally, Ivy Municipal High Income
illustrates why credit risk is best left to skilled managers with a deep team of strong analysts. The fund has more credit risk and fewer resources than the better funds in the muni world. Manager Mike Walls was running solo when he took over in 2009. Today, he has four analysts supporting him, but that's pretty thin for a fund with 47% of assets in nonrated bonds. Naturally, those bonds take even more legwork than rated bonds. The fund has suffered problems at two issues that didn't make timely payments. This is amid a strong recovery, so it makes us worry about how it would look in a recession.
As I mentioned, funds can use most of the above risks well. For individual investors to make the most of these higher-risk funds, it helps to have a core of lower-risk high-quality funds that will enable you to sleep at night in times of crisis. One must also understand the risks involved, as all of these funds will take it on the chin at some time. Even looking down the line at past calendar-year returns will help you to get some idea of the downside.
Loomis Sayles Bond
is aggressive in a few directions. It takes on credit risk, currency risk, a bit of sector risk, and equity risk. Yet Dan Fuss, Elaine Stokes, Matt Eagan, and Brian Kennedy are wise value investors. They often buy beaten-down debt such as that of Ireland in 2010 or riskier corporate bonds in 2008 so that they will get paid quite nicely if they are right. When there's a credit correction, they'll get hit, but they've consistently recouped those losses pretty quickly. The fund has a 3.50% 12-month yield and a 3.20% 30-day yield.
Gold-rated Templeton Global Bond
manager Michael Hasenstab takes on plenty of credit risk via emerging markets rather than leveraged corporations. As with Loomis, the idea here is to go for the issues that are really offering a good reward while avoiding enough blowups for it all to work out in the end. The fund currently has bets on Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia, so the ride will be bumpy. The fund has a 3.31% 12-month yield and 4.60% 30-day yield.
Gold-rated T. Rowe Price Tax-Free High Yield
has that telltale T. Rowe portfolio design of very small position sizes, and I love that in a fund taking on credit risk and a bit of liquidity risk to deliver solid returns and a 3.65% tax-free 12-month yield. Only two issues topped 1% of assets under management in the latest portfolio. Manager Jim Murphy has avoided Puerto Rico and some of the other land mines in munis to deliver solid results.
Bronze-rated Hotchkis & Wiley High Yield
has a robust yield because it does have a bit of issue and liquidity risk to go along with the obvious credit risk. Veterans Ray Kennedy and Mark Hudoff focus on issue selection rather than sector selection. They like small- and mid-cap issuers because they are less widely followed. But they hold cash as well as some more-liquid high-yield bonds and some credit default swaps to protect against a rainy day. The fund has a 5.65% yield for the trailing 12 months and 4.22% yield for the past 30 days.