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The Temptations of Plus and the Reality of Minus

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Charles Schwab’s YieldPlus funds promised returns higher than those of bonds at only slightly higher risk. Schwab classified the funds as ultrashort bond funds yet their holding were concentrated in mortgage backed securities which were decimated in the financial crisis.

The story of YieldPlus is only one example of the sad consequences of investors’ perennial search for returns higher than risk. A century ago investors sought such returns in stocks of mining companies. A magazine of the time told the story of a man, the son of a country doctor, who reached adulthood and was about to go into business. His father took him into the little back office, swung open the door of the rusty old safe, and took out a thick bundle of stock certificates. “My son,” he said, “you are going into business, and, I hope, will make some money. . . . When the time comes you will wish to buy some mining stock. Everyone does. When that time arrives come to see me. I will sell you some of mine. They are just as good, and will keep the money in the family.’”

Lessons from a century ago need repeating because we fail to learn. Almost half a million Italian retirees bought Argentine bonds in the 1990s because they offered higher interest rates than Italian bonds. The word default became an Italian word in 2001 when Argentina defaulted on its bonds. In 2005 Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s president at the time, offered to pay bondholders less than a third of their investment. When Rodrigo de Rato of the International Monetary Fund called on Argentina to be respectful to bondholders, Kirchner mocked him, “It’s pathetic to listen to them sometimes.” “Enter now,” said Kirchner to the bondholders, “or it will be your problem.”

Banks sold $7 billion of reverse convertibles in 2008, promising returns higher than risks and collecting fees in the process. Reverse convertibles are bonds linked to stocks such as Apple and Johnson & Johnson. Investors were promised high interest rates during the life of the bonds in addition to their invested money when the bonds mature. Yet if the prices of the stocks to which the bonds are linked fall, investors get the stocks rather than their invested money. The high interest rates of reverse convertibles were enticing, but not all investors were aware of their risks. Lawrence Batlan, an 85-year-old retired radiologist, invested $400,000 in reverse convertibles linked to stocks such as Yahoo! and SanDisk. He lost $75,000 of it when stock prices declined. “I had no idea this could happen,” said Dr. Batlan. “I have no desire to own Yahoo! stock or the others.”

The “accumulator” was also an investment that was too good to be true, but this one was offered mainly to investors in Hong Kong. Accumulators obliged investors to buy shares of a stock at a fixed price. Investors profited if the price of the shares increased but lost if the price decreased. Yet the profit potential of investors was limited by a condition mandating that they sell their shares back to the issuer if their price increases to a specified level. The year 2008 was bad for investors in accumulators as stock prices declined and investors nicknamed accumulators “I kill you later.” The fundamental flaw . . . is something that I learned from my grandmother,” said Kathryn Matthews, an investment professional. “You get nothing for free.”

Next time when you see an investment with “plus” in its name, substitute “minus” in its place and see if it is still as enticing.