Bonds, Interest Rates, and the Federal Reserve

| September 28, 2015

Business

Kent Patrick, Valdosta Today Financial Contributor

There are two fundamental ways that you can profit from owning bonds: from the interest that bonds pay, or from any increase in the bond’s price. Many people who invest in bonds because they want a steady stream of income are surprised to learn that bond prices can fluctuate, just as they do with any security traded in the secondary market. If you sell a bond before its maturity date, you may get more than its face value; you could also receive less if you must sell when bond prices are down.

Though the ups and downs of the bond market are not usually as dramatic as the movements of the stock market, they can still have a significant impact on your overall return. If you’re considering investing in bonds, either directly or through a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund, it’s important to understand how bonds behave and what can affect your investment in them.

Why watch the Fed?
Inflation also affects interest rates. If you’ve heard a news commentator talk about the Federal Reserve Board raising or lowering interest rates, you may not have paid much attention unless you were about to buy a house or take out a loan. However, the Fed’s decisions on interest rates can also have an impact on the market value of your bonds.

The Fed takes an active role in trying to prevent inflation from spiraling out of control. When the Fed gets concerned that the rate of inflation is rising, it may decide to raise interest rates. Why? To try to slow the economy by making it more expensive to borrow money. For example, when interest rates on mortgages go up, fewer people can afford to buy homes. That tends to dampen the housing market, which in turn can affect the economy.

When the Fed raises its target interest rate, other interest rates and bond yields typically rise as well. That’s because bond issuers must pay a competitive interest rate to get people to buy their bonds. New bonds paying higher interest rates mean existing bonds with lower rates are less valuable. Prices of existing bonds fall.

That’s why bond prices can drop even though the economy may be growing. An overheated economy can lead to inflation, and investors begin to worry that the Fed may have to raise interest rates, which would hurt bond prices even though yields are higher.

Focus on your goals, not on interest rates alone
Though it’s useful to understand generally how bond prices are influenced by interest rates and inflation, it probably doesn’t make sense to obsess over what the Fed’s next decision will be. Interest rate cycles tend to occur over months and even years. Also, the relationship between interest rates, inflation, and bond prices is complex, and can be affected by factors other than the ones outlined here. Remember, investments seeking to achieve higher yields also involve a higher degree of risk.

Your bond investments need to be tailored to your individual financial goals and take into account your other investments.


Patrick KentKent Patrick is one of our team’s three advisors. He serves on the firm’s investment management committee to create and manage portfolios as well as meet with and educate clients. Kent’s other responsibilities at the firm include preparing financial plans, investment/risk analysis, and keeping the firm up to date with new technology and processes. You can submit questions about this article to kent.patrick@lpl.com

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