Musings on Yield

When I closed my piece on Warren Buffett’s Annual Letter, I ended with an important statement tat when I read it in the morning, I thought many would find it cryptic.  Here it is:

And much as I like Buffett and Ray DeVoe, I would like my readers to internalize that there is no such thing as yield.  Yield is the decision of the company, but what you should  ask is what is the increase in value of the company.  Look for investments that increase your net worth the most.

And I would add “With an eye toward safety.”

When I say there is no such thing as yield, I am overstating a matter to make a point.

  • Will the debtor make the interest (or principal) payment?
  • Will the company pay the regular dividend?  Will they increase it?
  • Will you be able to hold the instrument so that you can realize the yield over the long haul?

During times of stress, yield has a nasty tendency to disappear, often with significant principal losses.  Thus I am skittish whenever I hear someone say that they need to get a certain yield.

Individuals and Institutions, for better, but usually for worse, often rely on getting a certain yield from fixed income investments.

  • If I don’t get this yield, I won’t be able to meet my monthly expenses.
  • If I don’t get this yield, my quarterly earnings will miss.
  • If I don’t get this yield, our ability to support our charitable endeavors will suffer.

Sigh.  Look, this could have been entitled “Education of a Corporate Bond Manager, Part 13,” but I didn’t because this is more broad and important.  It affects everyone.

Once there are no wages/nonfinancial profits, investors usually move into a yield-seeking mode.  I experienced this in spades for the insurance company that I helped to manage money for.

And yet, in the midst of the furor 2001-2003, we often acted against the insurer’s wishes in order to save their hide.  Particularly me; I could not bear doing the wrong thing, thinking that I would have the failure of an insurer on my conscience.

So in the midst of the nuttiness of 2002, I often did up-in-credit trades, reducing complexity trades, etc., when the market favored it.  Lose yield, gain safety, when the market is hot.  (Not when it is cold.)

I preserved the capital of the insurer, and it survived.  I even made extra money for them in the process, which they wasted on writing underpriced annuity business.

There was no level of yield that could have satisfied that client, even assuming that we could get it with safety.

But now as I start my asset management business, I deal with clients that are aiming for a certain yield.  To my surprise, even my Mom, the one who taught me the rudiments of investing is seeking for yield now.

You might or might not recall that the fourth real post at this blog was entitled Yield = Poison.  There are times to look for yield, and times not to.  The times not to are when yields and spreads are low.  At such a time, the best decision is not to reach for yield, but rather to forgo yield and preserve capital.  Buy TIPS, foreign bonds, and move up in quality and down in maturity in dollar terms.

I did this for an internal client 2004-2007, and made money for them, but it was utterly unconventional.  They could afford to deal with my idiosyncracies, because they didn’t need a current yield.

So, as I move to offer a fixed income strategy, I find myself butting heads with those that want a reliable income from bonds, and other fixed income instruments.  I’m sorry, but preserving principal is more important than getting yield.  Far better to eat into principal a little when spreads are tight, than to meet the spread target and get whacked in the bear phase of the credit cycle.

So, do I have a market for such investing in bonds, or is human nature so unchangeably mixed up that there will be few if any takers for my fixed income management?  Sadly, I think the answer is the latter.