INCOME


Where to Find Top Yields

It's been an excruciating year for income hogs, their favorite investments obliterated by the recession and the credit crunch. Since September, high-yielding standbys such as real estate investment trusts, master limited partnerships, business-development companies, and oil-and-gas royalty trusts have lost 50% or more. Junk bonds and emerging-markets debt have improved of late, but they've still sustained double-digit losses.

From calamity, however, springs opportunity. Many income securities are now tantalizingly cheap. Moreover, issuers of high-yielding stocks and bonds are sure to benefit from reflation -- the stimulation of global economies through massive government spending and rock-bottom interest rates. Reflation, which implies higher inflation, will hurt low-yielding Treasury bonds, but it should boost the profits of energy producers, real estate operators and highly leveraged companies that need to raise prices to prosper.

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The bear market in most income investments has resulted in lower cash payouts, too. With virtually all segments of the real estate sector suffering, dozens of REITs have cut their distributions, and many are paying dividends mainly in stock. Energy trusts have trimmed their disbursements because of low prices for oil, natural gas and other products. Led by financials, hundreds of companies have cut or suspended dividends on their common stock this year.

Credit-market chaos wreaked havoc with the recommendations in our previous "yieldfest" (see Earn 8% or More, July 2008). Our best picks, emerging-markets bond funds such as Fidelity New Markets Income and Pimco Emerging Markets Bond, dropped about 10% over the past year through April 9. Pipeline stocks, such as Kinder Morgan Energy, also held up reasonably well. But we had our share of disasters. For example, First Industrial Realty Trust cratered by nearly 90%, while Genco Shipping & Trading dived 73%.

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As the economy begins to improve, the rest of this year and 2010 will be much more rewarding for income seekers. From the safest to the riskiest, we offer our best bets for big cash returns over the coming year (of course, you should keep money that you'll need soon in supersafe instruments, such as money-market funds and bank accounts).

Municipal bonds

The recession is putting pressure on state and local coffers, so why feel good about the prospects for municipal debt? Munis, which rarely default, are yielding far more than comparable Treasury securities. This state of affairs is an anomaly because interest from munis is generally free of federal income taxes. And because munis offer such generous yields, they should hold up far better than Treasuries when the economy and inflation pick up. Still, to be on the safe side, we recommend avoiding tax-free bonds with maturities greater than ten years. At ten years, you can still find 4% to 4.5%, tax-free. That's the equivalent of 6% or so from a taxable bond. Ten-year Treasuries, by contrast, yielded 2.9% in mid April.

Like most other sectors of the bond market, munis suffered last year, but confidence in them has improved. Despite California's budget disaster, the state sold $6.5 billion of general-obligation bonds in March, the third-largest muni issue ever. These A-rated bonds have already gained value. In mid April, a California GO maturing in 2019 with a coupon of 5.5% sold at $1,050 for each $1,000 of face value to yield 4.7% to maturity. For a Californian in the top income-tax bracket, that's like getting 8% from a taxable bond. And for the highest earners living elsewhere, it's the equivalent of 7.2% from a taxable bond.

Some discount brokers, such as Fidelity and Charles Schwab, offer scores of good-quality tax-exempt bonds supported by taxes or the revenues from water bills, highway tolls and the like. In mid April, a representative ten-year, double-A-rated, noncallable water-system bond, such as an Orlando utilities commission issue, yielded 4.8% to maturity. If you prefer a fund, Baird Intermediate Muni (symbol BMBSX) was the top medium-maturity muni fund in both 2007 and 2008. Other standouts include Fidelity Intermediate Municipal Income (FLTMX), a member of the Kiplinger 25, and Schwab Tax-Free (SWNTX).


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