I saw an article on a financial planning site pointing to
the fact that 8 of the top 10 performing ETFs in 2011 were
US Government Bond funds. So I just did a quick double
check via Morningstar’s ETF screener, though the screener
doesn’t let me pick a specific year – it lets me do 1yr,
so we have a week or so shift from the article:
1. 60.74% Pimco 25+ yr Zero Cpn (ZROZ)
2. 57.98% Vanguard Extended Dur. Tsy (EDV)
3. 33.48% iShares Barclays 20+ yr Treas (TLT)
4. 29.39% SPDR BarCap Long Term Treas (TLO)
5. 29.04% Vanguard Long-Term Govt (VGLT)
6. 27.24% Pimco 15+ year US TIPS (LTPZ)
7. 24.12% SPDR Nuveen BarCap BAB (BABS)
8. 22.91% PowerShares Dynamic Pharma (PJP) — the only non-Bond ETF in the top 10
9. 22.53% Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index (BLV)
10. 22.14% Pimco Build America Bond (BABZ)
The next five also include 4 more long gov’t bond
funds plus one more Pharmaceuticals fund. The top
15 all had returns over 20%. The 16th was just under 20%
(and the 16th was also not bonds – it was US Gasoline)
As we all know, Bill Gross got 2011 wrong – he underweighted
Treasuries (eliminated them altogether for a while from
Total Return) and was beaten by the rest of the bond market
which kept their (or increased their) Treasury/Gov’t exposure.
If Treasuries looked like a bad bet last year – and it
was perfectly rational thinking — how much lower could
interest rates really go? – they look worse now.
The kind of capital appreciation which drove the very
long zero-coupon bonds to greater-than 50% returns in
2011 is not sustainable.
There are generally two reasons to have bonds in a passive
stock and bond portfolio: (a) diversification/lower volatility
and (b) income
Treasuries right now certainly aren’t doing anything for
income, so is there a justification for keeping them in place
for diversification and lowering of volatility? Perhaps,
but they sure look like they pose a lot more downside risk
than anything else right now.
This may sound like market timing, but is it really? The
equity market goes up and down but ultimately, as profits
increase, there’s potentially unlimited upside.
Bonds don’t have that same unlimited upside – for ZROZ to
repeat its performance, interest rates on 25+ year bonds would
have to go from their current level of just under 3% down to
below 1%. It’s not impossible, but it is highly unlikely. On
the other hand, if rates go up by even 1% to a still quite low
by historical standards of 4% – you’d see a loss of almost 30%
in ZROZ. That looks like a lot of risk.