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Bonds: What the Smart Money is Doing Now

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
April 13, 2010

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.   The Case for Convertible Bonds

2.   Why Convertible Bonds?

3.   The Wellesley Advantage

4.   Hear it Straight From the Advisor

Introduction

In my E-Letter of two weeks ago, I noted that we have received many responses from concerned readers in light of my recent prediction (March 23 E-Letter) that we likely face another serious financial crisis sometime in the not-too-distant future.  These concerns, coupled with the results of the recent alarming Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, tell the real story of how the vast majority of Americans are concerned about another financial crisis and the future direction of our country, the economy and, of course, their investments.

Quite frankly, I was surprised at the recent Fox poll results – showing that almost 80% of Americans fear another economic/financial crisis – because I thought that most people pretty much disregard the chance of another major financial crisis or depression anytime soon.  But it is now clear that most Americans are indeed fearful of Obama’s out-of-control federal spending and trillion-dollar budget deficits as far the eye can see.

Why do Americans feel that something is broken?  It may have even been the public display of dirty tricks, outright bribes and fuzzy math by our elected officials in passing the healthcare legislation.  Or perhaps it was two major bear markets in stocks in less than a decade, and the ravaging of most Americans’ retirement accounts, that has brought about this sense of pessimism about the future.  Whatever it was, the American people are now genuinely in a funk.

It is not in my nature to sulk around and passively wait for the status quo to change.  While I could go off on a political tangent and discuss how changes can and should be made in our roster of elected officials in Washington, I’ll save that for another issue.  This week, I’m going to proactively address one of the most prevalent questions I am getting from my concerned readers: “What do we do to protect our investment assets?”

In this installment, I’m going to address that question by discussing a specialized bond program that is one of the most interesting and unique strategies I have ever encountered in my many years as an Investment Advisor.  Most investors have bonds in their portfolios; a flood of money has poured into bonds following the stock bear market of 2008-2009, and continues to do so.  After reading what follows, you may want to seriously consider this less risky program as a replacement for your current bond holdings. 

The exceptional bond program I will discuss below delivered a stellar 34.6% return in 2009, net of all fees and expenses.  This performance is a composite of actual returns in real accounts.  And the program is off to a very good start thus far in 2010.

This unusual bond program, which began in 1995, has produced an annualized gain of over 10% (net of all fees) through the end of March of this year, while holding losing periods (drawdowns) to -18.18 (no small feat considering the breakdown in the credit markets that occurred during the subprime debacle).  Of course, future performance isn’t guaranteed.

And finally, before we get started, you should also know that I have a large amount of my own money in this program, considerably more than I have with any other single Advisor we recommend.  Obviously, if you are a sophisticated investor who understands the importance of diversification, I suggest you consider what follows very seriously – especially if you believe interest rates are going to rise in the near future.

The Case for Convertible Bonds

If there is one investment category that is getting a lot of attention right now, it’s bonds.  With short-term interest rates near all-time lows, exploding deficits and government borrowing, and the credit markets still not back up to speed, both corporate and government bonds have the potential to provide some good trends in the coming year. 

When trying to invest in such a way as to take advantage of the general trends in interest rates and bond prices, there are several ways you can go.  Mutual fund companies like Rydex Funds offer a variety of long and inverse (short) funds that allow you to invest according to your read on interest rate trends.  Or, if you prefer a professionally managed bond investment, you could consider the Hg Capital Long/Short Government Bond Program that I wrote about in my February 23 E-Letter.

If you are more interested in investing in a managed portfolio of individual bonds, rather than mutual funds that follow the general trends, there is one very special bond investment that I think is tailor-made for the uncertain years to come: the convertible bond.

When investing in individual bonds, the underlying value of any bond is based on the borrower’s ability to repay the debt.  Treasuries are usually considered the safest because the US government can tax, borrow or print money to make good on its obligations.  Corporate debt, on the other hand, depends upon the business prospects and financial strength of the issuer.  As a result, the ability to gauge the financial strength of an issuer is a big key to selecting an appropriate bond issue.

However, with interest rates so low, it seems likely that the only way for yields to go is up, what with the government running trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see.  In a traditional bond investment, you generally lose money in a rising interest rate environment if you need to sell before the bonds mature.  And with corporate bonds, there is always the risk that the issuing company may not be able to pay off the debt at maturity. 

Fortunately, several years ago we found a professional money manager who not only excels in the fundamental analysis of issuing corporations, but also specializes in managing “convertible bonds” which have both debt and equity components, and have options for exiting the bonds at various points prior to their maturity.

The money manager I’m talking about is Wellesley Investment Advisors, located in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Wellesley’s founder and CEO, Greg Miller, is a certified public accountant with many years of experience in analyzing corporate financial statements.  Greg is also an expert in the field of investing in convertible bonds, a special kind of debt instrument that can be converted into the stock of the issuing company under certain conditions.

It takes only a few minutes with Greg to recognize both his expertise and his enthusiasm for investing in this special kind of corporate bond.  He actually developed this strategy to manage his own money after selling a successful business.  Greg recognized early-on that the standard buy-and-hold approaches he was receiving from brokers could lead to major losses in bear markets.  So, he took on the challenge of finding a way to invest that would produce reasonable returns with limited risk.  The result of his hard work over the years is Wellesley’s “Limited Risk Investing Strategy.”

Why Convertible Bonds?

Historically, equities have provided a higher average annualized return than bonds, but along with this higher average historical return has been an increased level of risk.  However, this “risk premium” doesn’t always manifest itself.  During the 10 years from 2000 to 2009, the equity markets, as measured by the S&P 500 Index (including dividends), actually produced a negative total return.  If that wasn’t bad enough, while returns were dwindling, equity risk was increasing.  During the bear market of 2007–2009, the S&P 500 Index experienced a drawdown of over 50% of the Index’s value.

Thus, it is clear that to access the potential gains of the stock market, you may also subject yourself to the possible risk of losing a substantial part of your nest egg.  What if you needed your money to retire, send your kids to college or buy a business when those losing periods hit along the way?  It would be your tough luck.  Plus, some studies have shown that many investors are simply not emotionally prepared to lose half or more of the value of their investments.  They frequently panic and pull their money out of the market, usually at the worst possible time, and sometimes never return again.

Because of the high volatility inherent in the equity markets, Wellesley sought a way to participate in the market’s upside, but also have a measure of downside protection along the way.  They found just such a vehicle in the form of convertible bonds.  These bonds have the potential to participate in the upside movement of the stock market, yet have downside protection in the form of the issuer’s guarantee of the return of principal at maturity.  This return of principal, based on the issuer’s ability to pay, is why fundamental analysis of each convertible bond investment is so important.

A convertible bond is simply a corporate bond that can be exchanged for a specific number of the issuing company's shares of common stock.  The conversion feature is typically included as an incentive for the holder to accept a rate of interest lower than prevailing rates.  Buyers of these types of bonds hope that an increase in the value of the underlying stock will raise the value of the convertible bond.

Thus, the conversion privilege allows bondholders to participate in the upside potential of the underlying stock, yet have some underlying principal protection at the bond’s maturity or at certain “put” option dates prior to maturity.  Of course, any principal protection ultimately relies on the issuer’s financial ability to retire the debt.

Convertible bonds are typically sold at a price representing a premium over the current conversion value of the bond, meaning that the stock must appreciate in order for the bond to become more valuable.  While there is a yield (interest rate) component to most convertible bonds, Wellesley manages its bond portfolio primarily for capital gains, with any interest earnings being icing on the cake.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of convertible bonds is the “put” option available in many of the offerings.  This option allows the bondholder to redeem it for cash or stock at pre-determined prices at various points in time.  Thus, while the price of a convertible bond will likely fluctuate over the life of the bond, the availability of the “put” option can help to stabilize the bond price, assuming the financial condition of the issuer remains stable.

Historically, convertible bonds have been characterized as generally being “favorably leveraged,” meaning that they will rise more on an increase in the underlying stock than they will fall on a decline in the stock.  Convertibles are free to participate in a rise in the stock, but their bond component yields, coupled with the existence of “put” options, may limit the extent of any drop.  Hence, they often have a better reward/risk profile than the underlying stock.

As with many other types of corporate bonds, some convertibles may be “called” in by the issuer before their stated maturity dates.  This means that the company can require redemption of the bonds under certain conditions.  In such cases, the bondholder usually has a certain number of days to decide whether to allow the redemption, sell the bond or convert the bond to stock.  Upon conversion, the stock can be sold on the open market.

The Wellesley Advantage

The way Wellesley limits investment risk is by managing for “absolute returns,” which is a strategy with the goal of producing positive returns in both up and down markets.  Based on Greg’s extensive research, he feels one way investment risk can best be managed is by investing in a diversified portfolio of individual convertible bonds.

As I noted above, convertible bonds can be converted into common shares of the issuing company, which makes them a hybrid investment of sorts.  However, the “put” option is the feature that offers a great deal of additional investment flexibility, to the investor’s advantage. 

The put option is, in essence, an interim maturity date upon which the bond can be liquidated at a known price.  Thus, while the price of a convertible bond may fluctuate based on market conditions, the availability of the put option can help to stabilize the value of the bond, assuming the financial condition of the issuer remains stable.

Wellesley's investment strategy is a four-step process that employs fundamental analysis as a means to evaluate convertible bond issues.  First, Wellesley screens the convertible bond universe to find issues that meet their strict standards.  They typically look for convertible bond issues that are “investment grade,” that have attractive “put” and “call” provisions and an appropriate equity premium.

Next, Greg and his team put their financial analysis skills to work in researching the companies issuing the bonds.  Greg primarily seeks companies with growing profits and at least 10 years of positive growth.  He also seeks 10 years of continued strengthening of the corporate balance sheets and strong management performance.  The stock of the company should also be at a satisfactory “valuation multiple” in relation to its peers and the market as a whole.

It is also important to note that Greg and his team do not rely on the major credit rating agencies when doing their financial analysis on prospective issuers.  He did not trust these agencies even before the credit crisis revealed how unreliable their ratings can be.

Third, economic factors are then considered that might affect the bond issue being reviewed. Greg and his research team consider the overall economic outlook, interest rate projections, prospects for the sector and industry, and reach a preliminary investment decision. Wellesley’s goal is to select convertible bonds with the potential to produce an average absolute return of 10% or more annually over 5 to10 year periods without annual losses.

The final step of the process is to determine whether to buy a particular issue or pass it by. Additional screens and requirements are considered, with the overall goal of not losing money. This same analysis is also performed regularly on the existing bonds held in client accounts.

Wellesley constantly monitors each position in relation to the strength of the issuer, conversion value of the bond and any upcoming “put” and “call” dates. Wellesley calls this ongoing review their “buy, hold, sell, put or convert decision.”  While you may find a conventional broker who will sell you a convertible bond, few are likely to understand the importance of the put options and how to execute them to your advantage, much less provide this level of hands-on active involvement.

The importance of effective fundamental analysis cannot be overemphasized.  Convertible bonds have all of the normal characteristics of most other bonds (maturity date, interest rate risk, default risk, etc.), so it is important to determine the financial health of the company issuing the bond.  However, a major factor in the potential growth of a bond’s value is based on the underlying stock.  Thus, Wellesley’s analysis goes far beyond the company’s ability to retire the debt and seriously considers its long-term prospects in relation to its stock price.

The Wellesley Limited Risk Investing program differs from other managed accounts in our AdvisorLink Program in two important ways.  First, Wellesley’s trading model is not a market-timing strategy and will not go to cash during periods of down markets.  In addition, Wellesley invests primarily in individual bonds rather than convertible bond mutual funds.

Wellesley’s Performance Record

Anyone who says that a convertible bond program can’t produce a reasonable return with limited risk obviously hasn’t seen Wellesley’s actual track record.  While much has been written about the stock market’s “lost decade,” Wellesley’s performance seems to defy gravity.  For the rolling 10-year period ending on March 31, 2010, Wellesley’s Limited Risk Investing Strategy produced an annualized return of 7.57% while the S&P 500 Index remained in negative territory over that same period of time, losing 0.65% on an annualized basis.

The Wellesley convertible bond strategy also outperformed the Merrill Lynch All Convertibles Index, which posted an annualized gain of only 2.26% over the same 10-year period of time.  From its inception in January of 1995, Wellesley’s Limited Risk Investing program has produced an annualized return of over 10% through March 2010.  The charts and tables below tell a more complete story of Wellesley’s actual performance over the years – and remember that this performance is net of its maximum management fee and all transaction costs.  Past results are not necessarily indicative of future performance.

Wellesley Performance 

Wellesley requires a minimum investment of $200,000 in its managed accounts in order to provide sufficient diversification among various convertible bond issues.  At this level, Wellesley can also tailor the account to meet the specific needs of the individual investor.  Since investors are placed into convertible issues available at the time of their investment, few investors will have exactly the same bonds in their portfolios.

Webinar Recording Now Available

Just last week, we sponsored a live webinar event for a group of our largest clients featuring Wellesley’s Limited Risk Investing opportunity.  Wellesley founder and CEO, Greg Miller, CPA, walked participants through his background as a money manager and the methodology he uses to select individual convertible bonds for his clients.

While the live event was reserved for our top client group, you can now benefit from Greg’s discussion of the Wellesley strategy through a recorded version of the webinar now available on the Halbert Wealth Management website.  In this webinar, you will learn how Greg’s entry into the money management business was influenced by the experiences of his father and grandfather (this is an amazing story!).

You’ll also learn how a change made in convertible bond offerings in 1995 (i.e. – the “put” options) has made them a natural choice for investors seeking absolute returns, especially during bear markets.  You’ll discover how Wellesley uses this historical stability to attempt to reduce risk on behalf of their clients and, best of all, why the threat of rising interest rates could actually be good news for investors holding professionally selected convertible bonds.

Greg said that by the time the webinar was over, our listeners would know more about convertible bonds than over 90% of investors.  Thus, you owe it to yourself to listen in on this very informative look at an asset class that is not well known, but could be the key to reaching your financial goals.  Just click on the link below to play or download the recorded Wellesley webinar today:

Wellesley Webinar Recording Link

Conclusions

Wellesley’s Limited Risk Investing program is one of the most interesting and unique investment strategies I have ever seen.  The fact that this program returned over 34% last year, net of all fees and expenses, and is up nicely again in 2010 so far, is very impressive.  As always, I must add that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Convertible bonds, especially those that include “put” options, offer entry and exit strategies – and opportunities to limit risk – that most investors would never know about.  This investment niche is largely the domain of very sophisticated institutional investors, hedge funds and the like.

Yet Wellesley’s founder, Greg Miller, has spent years refining his skills in this complicated convertible bond arena, not only to be able to manage his own wealth successfully, but also to make his strategy available to individual investors such as our clients.  Greg is a real class-act, in my opinion, which is a big reason why I have so much of my own money invested with Wellesley.

Perhaps the best reason for seeking out Wellesley’s convertible bond program right now is that Greg’s research has shown that, historically, convertible bonds have often fared very well during periods of rising interest rates, as was clearly the case in 2009.  With interest rates likely to move even higher going forward, this could be an important asset class to have in your portfolio.

Moreover, you may well want to consider Wellesley as a replacement for your existing bond allocation, which will almost surely be hit hard if interest rates rise in the months and years ahead.  Think about that.

For all the reasons outlined above, I feel that the Wellesley Limited Risk Investing program could be an excellent choice during the current uncertain market environment.  I think you owe it to yourself to at least check out this program to see if it can complement your other allocations.

If you would like more information about the Wellesley Limited Risk Investing managed account program, give one of our Investment Consultants a call at 800-348-3601 or click on the following link to complete one of our online request forms.

**For those who call or e-mail and request information on the Wellesley Limited Risk Investing managed account program, we will send you a free DVD of our latest webinar with Greg Miller, complete with charts and graphs, while supplies last.  Remember, the minimum investment for this program is $200,000.**

You can also find more information on the Wellesley managed account, including our latest webinar with Greg Miller, on our website at www.halbertwealth.com.

Be sure to read the Important Disclosures below if you are interested in this investment.

Wishing you profits in uncertain times,

Gary D. Halbert

IMPORTANT NOTES:  Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. (HWM) and Wellesley Investment Advisors ("WIA") are Investment Advisors registered with the SEC and/or their respective states.  This article does not constitute a solicitation to residents of any jurisdiction where the program mentioned may not be available.  Information in this report is taken from sources believed to be reliable but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed.  Any opinions stated are intended as general observations, not specific or personal advice.  HWM receives compensation from WIA in exchange for introducing client accounts.  For more information on HWM or WIA, please consult the respective Form ADV II for the Advisor, available at no charge upon request.    Officers, employees and affiliates of HWM may have investments managed by Advisors discussed herein and others.

This presentation reflects only the convertible bond portion of WIA's client accounts.  Returns are based on all convertible bond positions held in accounts of all WIA clients during the periods reflected.  Actual client accounts include positions other than convertible bond positions.  Such other positions are not included in this performance presentation.  Accordingly, the actual return of WIA client accounts is different, in some cases substantially, from the performance information presented in convertible bonds.  During the periods reflected, WIA did not manage any other accounts that included only convertible bonds in their portfolios. Returns are net of a 1.75% annual management fee, which is the highest management fee charged by WIA during the period (minimum fee is $4,000/year, so smaller accounts may pay a higher fee).  Actual management fee rates vary based on each client's assets under WIA's management.  These performance numbers have not been verified by HWM, and therefore HWM is not responsible for their accuracy.

WIA's convertible returns have been calculated using the following methodology.  The bond’s market value on the last day of the month is determined as is the weight of each bond holding in the portfolio.  Each bond's return for the month is calculated.  It was assumed that the bond entered the portfolio on the first day of the month in which it was first purchased.  When a bond is completely sold out of a portfolio, the prior month-end value is adjusted to reflect the final sales price. Each bond's return for the month was weighted by the bond's weight in the portfolio.  The bond’s weighted returns for the month were summed to get the portfolio's return for the month.  These numbers were compounded to calculate the annual returns.

When reviewing past performance records, it is important to note that different accounts, even though they are traded pursuant to the same strategy, can have varying results.  The reasons for this include: i) the period of time in which the accounts are active; ii) the timing of contributions and withdrawals; iii) the account size; iv) the minimum investment requirements and/or withdrawal restrictions; and v) the rate of brokerage commissions and transaction fees charged to an account. There can be no assurance that an account opened by any person will achieve performance returns similar to those provided herein for accounts traded pursuant to the Wellesley Limited Risk trading program.

In addition, you should be aware that (i) the Wellesley Limited Risk trading program involves risk; (ii) the Wellesley Limited Risk trading program’s performance may be volatile; (iii) an investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment in the program; (iv) Wellesley will have trading authority over an investor’s account and the use of a single advisor could mean lack of diversification and consequently higher risk; and (v) the Wellesley Limited Risk trading  program’s fees and expenses (if any) will reduce an investor’s trading profits, or increase any trading losses.

Past performance is not indicative of future results.  An investment in convertible bonds involves a risk of loss.  The value of an investment in convertible bonds may decrease as well as increase. Performance does not reflect the effects of taxation, which results in lower returns to taxable investors.  “Annualized” returns take into account compounding of earnings over the course of an investment’s track record.

As benchmarks for comparison, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index and the Merrill Lynch All U.S. Convertibles Index (both of which include interest and dividends) represent unmanaged, passive buy-and-hold approaches.  The volatility and investment characteristics of the S&P 500 or the Merrill Lynch All U.S. Convertibles Index may differ materially (more or less) from that of the Wellesley Limited Risk program, and these Indexes cannot be invested in directly.  The performance of the S & P 500 Stock Index and the Merrill Lynch All U.S. Convertibles Index is not meant to imply that investors should consider an investment in the actively managed Wellesley Limited Risk program as comparable to an investment in the “blue chip” stocks that comprise the S&P 500 Stock Index or the all U.S. convertibles (excluding mandatory convertibles) that comprise Merrill Lynch All U.S. Convertibles Index. Statistics for "Worst Drawdown" are calculated at month end.  Drawdowns within the month may have been greater.  The returns reflect the reinvestment of interest income and dividend income. The results shown are for a limited time period and may not be representative of the results that would be achieved over a full market cycle or in different economic or market conditions.

Copyright © 2010 Halbert Wealth Management, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.


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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of Halbert Wealth Management, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, Halbert Wealth Management, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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