Lookin’ for yield in all the right places

In the still low-yield world, balancing income and risk is key. Heidi discusses three areas of opportunity to focus on.

In a world of low and in some cases negative interest rates, investors continue to struggle to find yield. As such, they still find themselves in an all too familiar place: Accept less income, or take on more risk in the search for yield.

But with global growth still sluggish and bond and stock prices looking expensive, balancing income and risk is more important (and challenging) than ever. The question for investors isn’t “Where can I go for yield?” It is: “In this environment, where can I find meaningful yield without taking on significant or unknown risk?”

There is a bit of a balancing act between yield and risk. Let’s take a look how it can be done in three areas of opportunities for investors seeking income today.

Fixed income

Bonds, or fixed income, essentially play two roles in a portfolio: They offer yield, or income, as well as potential diversification benefits as a sort of ballast to counter equity risks. Bonds run the gamut of risk and income. Short-term Treasuries offer the lowest default risk and generally the lowest yield, while high yield bonds typically offer considerably higher yields, but with significantly more risk.

These two investments are quite different, but both can play a crucial role in a portfolio. However, the yields of Treasuries are paltry while credit instruments like high yield bonds exhibit equity-like risk, albeit with potentially higher yields. For investors looking to balance yield AND risk, risk-adjusted returns are important. That’s where municipal bonds come in.

Municipal bonds aren’t an exciting topic over a cocktail party, however they were one of the best performing bond categories in 2015. According to Bloomberg data on the S&P AMT-Free National Municipal Bond Index, munis returned 3.3 percent in 2015, beating taxable investment grade bonds. This year, munis remain one of the highest sources of yield on a risk-adjusted basis. The sector’s tax-exempt status is another plus, and munis are a portfolio diversifier, with negative correlations to equities and high yield, our analysis shows.

Other parts of the fixed income market have experienced volatility recently due to energy exposure or anticipation of Federal Reserve (Fed) moves, but the municipal bond market has been relatively stable. This may surprise some given the recent default announcement of Puerto Rican debt, which is a vivid reminder of why it’s important for investors to be completely aware of what they own and the risk they take in search of yield. (iShares ETFs are not impacted directly by the default, as none hold bonds issued by any U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico or Guam.)

Equity income

If you prefer equity-like risk to come from equities in your search for yield, dividend stocks are a logical place to look. But it is important to remember that not all dividend stocks are created equal. As I’ve written before, my preference is for the segment of the market known as “dividend growers,” which as the name implies, are companies with a history of increasing dividends. There are some conditions—and clear distinctions—that may set dividend growers apart from other dividend stocks in today’s market, particularly their attractive valuations, stable earnings and stronger balance sheets.

Somewhere in between

Finally, there is an often overlooked option for investors looking to balance risk and yield: preferred stocks. Preferreds are income-generating securities that have both stock and bond characteristics. When it comes to risk, they’re somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Similar to a bond’s coupon payment, preferred stocks pay fixed or floating dividends. They can appreciate in value like a common stock, but they’re not as volatile.

Some question if preferred stocks will remain an attractive asset class in a rising rate environment. But since we expect the Fed to continue its dovish stance and rate rises to be gradual, we wouldn’t expect to see big downward spikes in preferred prices. Preferred stocks may also be attractive in this environment due to the fact that they’re issued mainly by financial companies, like banks, where net interest margins generally show improvement. Also, see what my colleague Russ Koesterich has to say on preferreds.

Investors looking to balance risk and income while searching for yield may want to consider the iShares S&P National AMT-Free Municipal Bond Fund (MUB), the iShares Core Dividend Growth ETF (DGRO) and the iShares U.S. Preferred Stock ETF (PFF).

Heidi Richardson is Head of Investment Strategy for U.S. iShares and a regular contributor to The Blog.

Carefully consider the Funds’ investment objectives, risk factors, and charges and expenses before investing. This and other information can be found in the Funds’ prospectuses or, if available, the summary prospectuses which may be obtained by visiting www.iShares.com or www.blackrock.com. Read the prospectus carefully before investing.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

There is no guarantee that dividends will be paid.

This material represents an assessment of the market environment as of the date indicated; is subject to change; and is not intended to be a forecast of future events or a guarantee of future results. This information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice regarding the funds or any issuer or security in particular.

The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and are not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information presented does not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy or investment decision.

This document contains general information only and does not take into account an individual’s financial circumstances. This information should not be relied upon as a primary basis for an investment decision. Rather, an assessment should be made as to whether the information is appropriate in individual circumstances and consideration should be given to talking to a financial advisor before making an investment decision.

Fixed income risks include interest-rate and credit risk. Typically, when interest rates rise, there is a corresponding decline in bond values. Credit risk refers to the possibility that the bond issuer will not be able to make principal and interest payments.

There may be less information on the financial condition of municipal issuers than for public corporations. The market for municipal bonds may be less liquid than for taxable bonds. Some investors may be subject to federal or state income taxes or the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Capital gains distributions, if any, are taxable.

Preferred stocks are not necessarily correlated with securities markets generally. Rising interest rates may cause the value of the Fund’s investments to decline significantly. Removal of stocks from the index due to maturity, redemption, call features or conversion may cause a decrease in the yield of the index and the Fund.

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