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The Truth Behind Treasuries' Lousy January

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Buying and holding Treasury bonds was a winning strategy in 2008. With 30-year bonds returning 41.3%, T-bonds were the mirror image of the stock market, which had its worst year in generations.

Thus far in 2009, however, investing heavily in T-bonds hasn't saved anyone's portfolio.

Outlook for bonds
The bond market is complicated and diverse. Just like the stock market, one part can rise while another is falling.

In 2008, prices of low-quality bonds -- also known as "junk" bonds – generally fell, while high-quality bonds like Treasuries rose. When investors try to avoid risk at any cost, they typically gravitate to T-bonds, some of the safest investments around.

In a deflationary environment, high-quality bonds and Treasuries do well, but they may also face substantial corrections at times. Sure enough, Treasuries are now declining, even as stocks endure similar pressure. Investors have decided that buying junk bonds at record spreads to Treasury bonds -- the difference in yield between the two investments -- is a risk worth taking at the moment.

Junk is bouncing
Risky bonds have rallied in the past two months, as measured by the performance of the iBoxx $High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (HYG). Treasuries, as measured by the Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond Fund (NYSE: TLT  ) , are actually down noticeably year to date, as money leaves this safe-haven investment for riskier assets.

In my opinion, you can get stock-like returns from riskier bonds, given their high yields. But to manage your risk, you'll need to buy into those bonds through ETFs or mutual funds. Don't go into deep junk territory; stick with the higher-rated junk issuers, since it's unclear how long this recession will last.

One option is the aforementioned iBoxx $High Yield Corporate Bond Fund, which mainly holds BB and B issue bonds, and carries an average rating by S&P of B-. Its dividend yield is 8.5%, and while the ETF holds 53 different bond issues from many industries, the largest issue is weighted at 2.7%. This ETF is a good bet on an economic recovery, but its performance depends heavily on whether the unorthodox actions of the Federal Reserve work. If you'd like something safer, the Barclays 20+Year exchange-traded fund I mentioned above may also merit your Foolish research.

Meanwhile, in the stock market …
If January's any indication, the stock market faces a rough year ahead:

S&P Economic Sectors

January 2009 Return

2008 Return

S&P 500












Consumer Discretionary



Consumer Staples



Health Care






Information Technology



Telecommunication Services






As of Jan. 31, 2009. Data from Standard & Poor's.

The stock market's weakness seems to come from the usual-suspect sectors -- Industrials, Financials, Consumer Discretionary, and Telecom Services -- all of which were down in double digits. In my opinion, the market will rally only when the banks stabilize.

To capitalize on that eventual rebound, I'd stick with the strong names in the sector: JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM  ) , Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , US Bancorp (NYSE: USB  ) , or Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) .

Wells Fargo is clearly a big winner from the current mess. It boosted lending in its most recent quarter by $9.7 billion, while three of its largest competitors decreased lending by a combined $86.7 billion. Wells Fargo also maintained its dividend -- which currently stands at 7.2% -- and declared that it does not need more government funds. Some might disagree, but I think this one is a keeper.

Another emerging winner is Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) , which is buying Smith Barney via a joint venture with the disintegrating Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) . Morgan Stanley is as badly hit as most of the Wall Street firms, but its shares began to notably outperform following the Smith Barney buyout. As a large-cap financial stock with a $21 billion market cap, Morgan Stanley's rise in January, even as the S&P 500 financial sector fell 26.6%, suggests it's doing something right. Its profits may remain muted for another year, but this stock is definitely worth a spot on your radar screen.

So far in 2009, stocks and bonds are sending conflicting messages. Stock investors are clearly worried, while bond investors' greater appetite for risk suggests hopefulness. Who do you think is right? Share your opinions in the comments section below.

More on market issues:

Fool contributor Ivan Martchev does not own shares or bonds in any of the companies in this story. JPMorgan and US Bancorp are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2009, at 7:08 PM, HappyEndingz wrote:

    One would think this commentary would answer its proposition: "The Truth Behind Treasuries' Lousy January"

    Unfortunately, I have yet to discover this "truth". The article gives a vague reference to treasuries doing well in a deflationary environment, and yet in this deflationary period, investors have decided to run - for reasons undisclosed - from treasuries into junk bonds. What?

    Not here to nitpick, per se.

    I simply would enjoy a second commentary with a bit more theory/insight into answering the premise.


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