As interest rates have fallen to record lows and stayed there in recent years, the yield on your savings may be stuck in neutral. If you've focused on capital preservation and kept your assets in U.S. Treasuries, a money market account, or certificates of deposit, you may have minimized the chance of the financial equivalent of a car crash. However, you also may not be happy letting your portfolio's engine idle forever. Dividend-paying stocks are one solution, but last year's volatility has made many investors wary of committing more money to equities. Though past performance is no guarantee of future results, for those who need something more than 2% 10-year Treasury yields and who can handle the additional risks involved, there are other alternatives that could potentially boost overall yield.
Many corporations have taken the opportunity presented by low rates to refinance their corporate debt and lower borrowing costs. Though any company could still default on its obligations, of course, and all bonds face market risk, stronger balance sheets have helped lower the overall risk of corporates as a whole. The spread between the yield on Moody's Aaa-rated industrial bonds and 10-year Treasuries at the end of 2011 was roughly 2 percentage points. For a Baa bond (one notch above noninvestment-grade), the difference was over 3 percentage points. Yields on noninvestment-grade bonds (so-called high-yield or "junk" bonds) were higher still, roughly 5% above 10-year Treasuries.
Floating-rate bank loans (also known as senior loans, leveraged loans, or senior secured loans) are a form of short-term financing for companies that usually do not rate an investment-grade credit rating. The rate is typically tied to the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) and adjusts with it, generally quarterly. As with high-yield bonds, the lack of an investment-grade credit rating means bank loans must offer a higher yield. As with all debt, investors still run the risk of default. However, bank loans also have benefitted from the favorable corporate finance picture noted above. And because bank loans typically are a company's most senior debt obligation and are secured by some form of collateral, investors have typically recovered a higher percentage of their investment in the event of default than with high-yield bonds secured only by a company's promise to pay. Finally, as with all bonds, as bond yields rise, the price falls, which could cut overall return enough to offset any yield advantage. For the majority of investors, the most accessible way to invest in floating-rate bank loans is through a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund.
Master limited partnerships
Master limited partnerships (MLPs) can not only offer an income stream in the form of quarterly cash distributions; they also may offer tax benefits. An MLP that receives 90% of its income from qualified passive sources such as oil, natural gas, real estate, or commodities may qualify for tax treatment as a partnership rather than a corporation. If it does so, the MLP is not taxed at the partnership level, and may pass on a greater share of its earnings to the limited partners (i.e., individual investors), who also receive a proportionate share of any depreciation, depletion allowances, tax credits, and other tax deductions. Many MLPs are managed so as to ensure that those tax benefits offset or eliminate any current tax liability on the cash distributions, which are considered a return of capital and used to adjust the individual partner's cost basis upon sale of the MLP units. An MLP that pursues this strategy successfully can in effect provide a tax-deferred ongoing income stream, which can be particularly appealing to investors in a high income tax bracket. Yields on MLPs vary greatly, depending on the particular MLP's assets and the way in which the general partner manages the business. MLPs have risks. Because they can be relatively illiquid, an investor should plan to stay invested for a number of years, and individual investors' collective share of cash distributions may decrease over time. Also, the tax issues involved can be complex; for example, MLPs can create problems if held in a tax-deferred retirement account. Finally, commissions and other front-end costs can reduce the amount available for investment.
Data sources: Corporate bond spreads: Federal Reserve System report on selected interest rates (H.15) as of December 29, 2011. Rates quoted are for Moody's Aaa- and Baa-rated bonds. High-yield bond spread: calculated based on Merrill Lynch High-Yield 100 as quoted on Wall Street Journal Market Data Center as of December 29, 2011.