Last Updated Jul 21, 2010 9:48 AM EDT
It sure isn't easy playing it safe these days. The only thing lower than the yield on your savings account is Mel Gibson's reputation. Minuscule interest payments weren't too big a deal during the depths of the financial crisis when all that really mattered was safety, but two years on that story line is wearing thin.
The good news is that there are strategies for increasing your income stream to more than a pathetic trickle, from shifting cash into higher-yielding options to tilting your bond and even stock portfolio towards investments that can generate more income. To be sure, aggressive yield chasing can undermine your long-term strategy; you may remember what happened to investors who were attracted to the juicy payouts on subprime mortgage bonds. “Reaching for more yield today can be false comfort if it comes at the price of degrading your principal,” warns Christine Benz, head of financial planning at Morningstar. “You need to respect that the purpose of many of your income investments is to provide stability to your overall portfolio.”
With that caveat in mind, here are 10 smart ways to boost your payouts without throwing kerosene on your financial plan.
- The challenge: Get paid something, anything, without sacrificing liquidity or safety.
High-yield savings accounts: The national average for plain vanilla savings accounts is about 0.80 percent, but if you seek out the best deals you can earn nearly twice that. Kelly Campbell, a financial advisor in Fairfax, Va., recommends the “locavore” approach; he says community banks have offered yields to his clients that are as much as 0.75 percent (also referred to as 75 basis points) above the deals from the big national banks. Bankrate.com tracks the top-yielding bank and credit union savings deals. Granted, on a $10,000 investment, that difference of 75 basis points only amounts to $75 a year, but if you’ve got more cash than that, it can add up.
Yields are even stingier on brokerage account money market funds. Your best move to earn more yield without any principal risk is to transfer any cash from your brokerage into a bank savings account. If you’re dead-set against pulling money out of your brokerage account, consider shifting some of your money fund assets into a short-term bond fund to pick up yield. Just be aware you would be likely to see a small dent in your principal if rates rise.
Reward checking accounts: Manage to jump through a few hoops and you can earn 4 percent on a federally insured bank account with absolutely no principal risk. To collect that juicy yield you typically need to make one monthly direct deposit into your account, and swipe your debit card at least 10 times a month. Fail to navigate the attached strings and your rate plummets to 0.25 percent. “These make sense only if that is already your behavior, otherwise you’ll likely not meet the requirements and then end up earning less than a standard account,” advises Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at bankrate.com, which has a rundown of local and national offers for reward checking accounts.
Ally’s low-penalty CD: The Federal Reserve has warned that short-term rates will remain near zero for an “extended period,” but that probably means months, not years. So locking up your money in a long-term CD that yields 2.5 percent doesn’t seem worthwhile. “You don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road when rates finally do rise,” says McBride. Typically, if you tie up your money in a five-year CD, the early withdrawal penalty can be as much as six months interest. But one noteworthy exception is Ally Bank’s 5-year CD. The early withdrawal penalty there is just two months of interest, so you could roll over the money without too much pain if rates rise. And the CD’s current annual percentage yield of 2.94 percent is more than you can currently earn on a 7-year Treasury note.
A stable value fund in your 401(k): While your emergency-fund cash needs to stay in a liquid bank account, for any other cash stake, the best deal may be the stable value fund sitting inside your 401(k). These options are designed to deliver higher yields than a money market with virtually zero risk of your principal taking a hit. According to Hueler Analytics, the average stable value fund yielded 3.17 percent at the end of the first quarter.
- The challenge: “There is no free lunch in terms of earning yield,” says Rob Williams, director of Income Planning at Schwab. “Many types of bonds offer higher yields, but they come with some form of higher risk.” Williams’ advice is to keep your core fixed income portfolio intact by focusing on a mix of short and intermediate high quality corporate and Treasury issues (or municipals if you are in a high tax bracket), and then carving out no more than 20 percent of your total fixed income allocation for “opportunistic” investments that can generate more yield. “If you want to put more into higher yielding investments, that needs to come out of your stock allocation,” he says.
- The challenge: With pockets of the stock market providing better income payouts than a 10-year Treasury for the first time since the late 1950s, it is tempting to swap bonds for high-yielding stock plays. Their higher payouts may signal that blue chip stocks are a relative bargain compared with Treasurys. But remember, there’s no guarantee that stocks will hold their value: Dividend—paying stocks slumped 28 percent in 2008, while a benchmark bond index gained nearly 6 percent. If you want more income from stocks, carve it out of your existing stock allocation.
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Floating rate funds: These are portfolios of short-term loans banks make to corporations in need of cash. A current yield of 3 percent to 4 percent on average comes with a unique selling point in today’s uber-low interest rate environment: Unlike most fixed income plays, the payout of floating rate debt goes up when rates rise. Much like an adjustable rate mortgage, the interest rate on these short-term bank loans to corporations is pegged to a benchmark rate such as LIBOR or the Prime Rate; when those rates rise, so too does the interest rate on the floating rate fund. Another benefit is that the debt is “senior secured,” meaning that in the event the borrowing firm gets into financial trouble, this debt is way up on the food chain in getting paid back. That said, floating rate funds are most definitely not a cash equivalent. Most floating-rate borrowers are companies with lower credit quality, so when the economy’s in trouble, they can get smacked. In 2008, for example, the average bank loan fund lost 30 percent, according to Morningstar, though they’ve just about recovered their losses since then. Fidelity Floating High Rate Income (FFRHX, 3.2 percent yield) held on far better than most, losing 17 percent in 2008; over the past five years its annualized return is 4 percent.
Junk bond funds: A 180-degree pivot from government-backed Treasury bills, junk (also called high-yield) bonds are debt issued by companies whose financial credit worthiness is deemed to be below “investment grade.” That typically means a credit rating of BBB or lower. To be sure, the big money was made in junk last year when the fear factor for defaults was at code red; the average junk bond fund gained more than 45 percent in 2009 as confidence returned to the market. Steve Romick, manager of the go-anywhere FPA Crescent fund (FPACX) made a bold junk bet in early ’09 when yields were above 20 percent, but he still sees value in junk even though yields have come down dramatically. “We’re getting 8 percent and I think that’s going to be better than the stock market over the next few years,” Romick recently told Morningstar, noting that with the economic recovery taking hold “credit risk is mostly behind us.” Vanguard High Yield Corporate (VWEHX; 7.8 percent yield) delivers a diversified junk portfolio with a cheap 0.28 percent annual expense charge.
Emerging market bond funds: These funds invest in debt issued by governments and corporations of emerging economies such as the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Yields are currently more than twice the payout on the 10-year U.S. Treasury; as a result, investors rushed into these funds this year. A small slug of emerging markets bonds offers a compelling way to add currency and global diversification, but just don’t mistake it for a core holding. “These can be as volatile or more volatile than stocks,” points out Schwab’s Williams. If your current bond fund mix doesn’t already give you exposure to emerging markets, check out PIMCO Emerging Markets Bond (PEMDX; 5.1 percent yield).
Multi-sector bond funds: With this option, you’re hiring a pro to make the opportunistic bond calls for you. Dan Fuss at Loomis Sayles Bond (LSBRX, 5.7 percent yield) has a long and distinguished career moving in and out of all pockets of the fixed income market. He recently had less than 2 percent of his $19 billion fund invested in U.S. Treasuries and nearly 25 percent in junk. More than a quarter of the fund was invested outside the U.S.
Blue-chip dividend stocks: Many dividend payers are now spinning off income above the 3 percent yield of the 10-year Treasury, but what should really get your attention is that many of them are high-quality stalwarts such as Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Walmart and ExxonMobil that currently trade at below-market p/e multiples. That makes dividend stocks a rare twofer right now: they are the sweet spot for stock investors that also provide bond-beating income payouts. A diversified fund or ETF specializing in dividend payers (and growers) is the smart way to sidestep individual blowouts, such as BP’s recent decision to suspend its dividend. The SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SDY; 3.7 percent yield) focuses on high-yielding dividend payers within the broad market index, while Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (VIG; 2.2 percent yield) seeks out dividend payers with more growth appreciation.
Master limited partnership (MLP) exchange-traded notes: MLPs invest in energy infrastructure firms that own the pipes and storage facilities that get oil and gas around the country. Juicy income payouts on MLPs have long been an allure for yield seekers, but until recently, you needed patience and a CPA to deal with the headache-inducing K-1 tax form required of them. But a new breed of MLP Exchange-Traded Notes (close cousin to an ETF) delivers yields north of 5 percent, and all that’s required come tax time is a simple 1099 dividend form. The JP Morgan Alerian MLP Index ETN (AMJ; 5.7 percent yield) is one good bet for energizing your portfolio’s income production.
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