FEBRUARY 2, 2017
FOMC opts to hold steady amid improving conditions  
By Robert B. Segal, CFA, Atlantic Capital Strategies, Inc.

Following a two-day policy meeting in Washington, Federal Reserve officials unanimously held their benchmark rate steady in a range between 0.50% and 0.75%, while noting in a statement some recent improvements in the economy.

The Fed provided little direction on when it might next raise borrowing costs, as officials debate the impacts of policy changes with the new administration. The central bank currently projects three rate hikes for 2017, though committee members differ on how proposed tax cuts and regulatory changes may boost growth and inflation.

Looking Ahead
“Measures of consumer and business sentiment have improved of late,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in its statement Wednesday. Policy makers reiterated their expectations for moderate economic growth, “some further strengthening” in the labor market and a return to 2% inflation.

The FOMC also repeated that it anticipates interest rates will rise gradually. The statement said job gains “remained solid” and the unemployment rate “stayed near its recent low,” a tweak from December’s language that the rate “has declined.”

“Inflation increased in recent quarters but is still below the committee’s two percent longer-run objective,” the Fed said. Market-based measures of inflation compensation are “still low,” the central bank said, after suggesting in December that such measures had “moved up considerably.”

The committee left unchanged its stated intention to continue reinvesting its maturing debt holdings until “normalization” of the benchmark rate is “well under way.” The Fed’s balance sheet stands at about $4.5 trillion.
Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who didn’t have a press conference scheduled after this meeting, will have the opportunity to discuss the decision further during her semiannual monetary-policy testimony to Congress in mid-February. The FOMC next meets on March 14-15.

Before the latest statement, investors saw a roughly 38% chance that the first rate increase of 2017 would come at the Fed’s March meeting, based on trading in federal funds futures. The odds rose to about 52% for the subsequent gathering in early May and 75% for mid-June. The market forecast is currently calling for two hikes in the next two years and one in 2019. This would bring the overnight rate to 1.12% for December 2017, 1.62% at year-end 2018 and 1.87% for 2019. 

Tough Decisions
With bond yields still near historic lows, investors in fixed-income securities face a dilemma. Short-term bonds offer sub-par yields, but provide reinvestment opportunities in a rising rate environment. On the other hand, longer-term bonds secure a higher yield, but present larger losses if market rates rise.
 
Ten-year Treasury notes currently yield about 2.50%, not a great return given the interest rate risk in holding the security over the next decade. If yields were to climb 100 basis points to 3.50%, the price would drop almost 9%.  In this scenario, a five-year Treasury issue yielding 1.9% would lose 4.6%, and a 1.2% two-year note would drop 2%.  Even if bonds are held to maturity, experiencing price losses only on paper, the investor still foregoes the opportunity to earn higher returns if yields rise. 

The opposite would occur if rates fall, resulting in a sharp rally and producing sizeable unrealized gains. If this were to happen, the investor benefits from having locked in above-market yields. The investor is faced with the challenge of managing a portfolio structured to perform in either scenario.

One solution is to create a “bond ladder.” A laddered portfolio consists of securities that mature in successive years, starting in a few years and extending out to five years or longer. Assembling a stable basket of cash flows avoids locking in all of one’s funds at “low” yields, while enabling the investor to pick up some additional income. 

The benefit of a ladder is that as rates move higher, bonds coming due in the near term can provide funds for reinvestment when the alternatives may be more attractive. Depending on the investor’s preference and individual situation, the principal can be put to work at the desired maturity. If current yields are higher than the bonds rolling off, the investor is able to increase overall returns and boost portfolio performance.

At the close of every year, it seems the market prognosticators predict higher rates for the ensuing twelve months. Heeding these warnings, many investors flock to ultra-short-term bonds, sacrificing income. According to academic studies, by investing the bulk of the portfolio in short-term, low-yield bonds, investors are exposed to a different risk over time: earning low yields. There is an opportunity cost of sitting at near zero and waiting for higher rates, as the conventional wisdom about bonds does not always play out. Just as a well-balanced portfolio consists of several types of investments, so too should it contain a well-structured schedule of maturities.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Financial Managers Society.

About the Author

Robert B. Segal, CFA, Founder/CEO, Atlantic Capital Strategies, Inc.
Robert B. Segal, CFA is founder and chief executive officer with Atlantic Capital Strategies, Inc. Bob has been in the banking industry since 1982, having worked in several community banks with roles in mortgage banking, sales and trading, and asset liability management. He is a frequent speaker at industry events and contributes to many regional and national finance publications. His firm provides investment advisory services to community-based institutions. Bob can be reached at bob@atlanticcapitalstrategies.com or 781-276-4966.