Stocks versus TIPS: What’s next for the ‘prudent investor’?

Are Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities now an unsafe or unwise investment? Is the Treasury market at the start of a long bear market? Will stocks greatly outperform bonds over the next 10 years?

Burton Malkiel

Burton Malkiel

Burton Malkiel, author of ‘A Random Walk Down Wall Street,’ wrote an intriguing piece for the Wall Street Journal on March 22, titled ‘What Does the Prudent Investor Do Now?

Malkiel makes the case that as the economy continues to improve, investments in bonds – especially Treasuries – are going to make investors weep. One of his key points:

Bonds are the worst asset class for investors. Usually thought of as the safest of investments, they are anything but safe today. At a yield of 2.25%, the 10-year U.S. Treasury note is a sure loser.

While Malkiel doesn’t specifically mention TIPS, he does point out that super-low rates on today’s Treasuries mean that investors will get negative real returns (less than the inflation rate). In the case of TIPS, most buyers today are guaranteeing themselves rates  less than inflation, since the base rate is currently negative all the way up to 10-year issues.

As an alternative, Malkiel suggests investments in low-cost stock mutual funds (he feels that stocks are still a bit undervalued) and real estate (which could be nearing the end of a massive bear market).

Back to being ‘prudent’ … Malkiel makes a sensible, conservative investing argument: Stocks will outperform Treasuries in the next 10 years. Yes, that could very likely happen, as Treasuries are probably ending an amazing 30-year run of lower rates.

But the argument should never be stocks vs. bonds. The argument should be risk investments vs. super-safe investments. I have never argued that anyone hold 100% of their portfolio in TIPS or Treasuries. That would not make sense.

Every investor should decide, how much risk do I want to take? … and allocate assets to match that risk. An investor interested in capital preservation – nearing retirement with a sizable nest egg – could come up with something like:

  • 10% Highest risk: International, small cap stocks
  • 40% Higher risk: Large-cap dividend paying stocks
  • 25% Lower risk: Broadly diversified bond funds, municipal bonds
  • 25% No risk: TIPS, I Bonds, insured bank CDs, Treasuries held to maturity

My contention is that you can change the asset allocations, but you can’t change what’s in them. No matter how safe you think stocks are, you can’t put them into your ‘No Risk’ category. There are only a few ‘No Risk’ investments (money market funds, by the way, don’t qualify).

With the No Risk category, the investor is looking to preserve capital, no matter what happens. Stocks and bond mutual funds (including TIPS funds) can’t fill that role. In recent years, buying and holding TIPS to maturity has been an excellent way to fill this need. Today’s low rates make TIPS less attractive. I Bonds remain the best choice for this category, up to your purchase limit.

The Treasury ‘bear’ market. There are lots of news articles out this weekend pointing out that the Treasury market has taken a hit in 2012, for example: ‘Bonds limp to end worst quarter since 2010.’ And of course, stocks have done very well in the last three months.

So I want to close today with this chart, which compares the performance of the SPY ETF (S&P 500), the TIP ETF (overall TIPS market) and the TLT ETF (long-term Treasuries):

3 month chartAmazingly, the TIP ETF split the difference between the stock market gains and the long-term Treasury losses, and was actually up slightly in the first quarter. That is not a bear market.

TIPS are a different animal, because of the inflation adjustment to principal. It appears that investors are fleeing longer-term Treasuries, but not TIPS.

And that also means that TIPS remain ‘unattractive’ for near-term buy-and-hold purchases.

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2 Responses to Stocks versus TIPS: What’s next for the ‘prudent investor’?

  1. joe says:

    Its tough to beat inflation after taxes. At least a 30 year TIP bond, currently yielding .920 real last time I checked will do that in a tax deferred vehicle like a roth ira. The stock market is not guaranteed to do this. Since 2000, I see the stock market has returned an average of 3% a year. Seems like a really low rate of return for the amount of risk one takes on. Inflation ran about 3.3% last year based on CPI, so you last in real terms with the s and p 500 last year which returned a 2% dividend. This is really a very tough market to invest in as I feel everything is overvalued. And this stock market return is after the fed infused a huge sum of cash into the system. The gains just aren’t real. Tangible assets like houses are deflating while things we need like healthcare, food, and energy are inflating. I really wonder what the best way to hedge all of this is. And I firmly believe the answer is not gold as gold doesn’t do anything except has some use as fillings.

  2. tipswatch says:

    Joe, you pretty much sum up investor angst 2012. A few reactions:

    1) The 30-year TIPS at .920 is still historically a very low rate. That would normally be very close to 3%. I could possibly argue that a 5-year TIPS yielding negative 1% is better than a 30-year yielding positive 1%, but … not sure about that.

    2) My feeling is that very low stock market returns over the last dozen years is probably a positive for the stock market going forward. The outsized gains of the 1990s are finally working their way out of the system.

    3) The Fed has definitely inflated both the stock market and the bond market, and that can’t continue. Both might suffer when the Fed turns the spigots off.

    4) The Fed has had no effect on real estate, and I wonder if the one factor that would push real estate forward would be … rising interest rates. Once buyers see the lower rates are fading away, they would have to act.

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