Now's a Great Time to Build a Bond Ladder

Given the rate-curve inversion, one-year ladders have higher average yields than longer ones

piggy bank climbing ladder
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Even after two favorable monthly inflation reports, cash and bond yields remain high and steady. It continues to be a buyer’s market. Still, readers are often uncertain how best to proceed, particularly with new or rollover money. You may be tempted by a basic broad-based bond market index fund. But you can do better.

Your goal should be two guarantees: high yield to maturity and full recovery of principal. Neither is assured using index-based exchange-traded funds. An actively managed, go-anywhere fund from an ace manager such as Baird, Fidelity or Pimco will out-return the indexes over the years, but there is near-term price risk if managers mistime bets or if hostile reports on jobs or inflation or another trading signal rips into bond values. 

If your choices are limited within a 401(k) or other retirement plan, choose a short or ultra-short bond fund option, if possible. If not, stay with cash for now. The inverted yield curve, with short-term yields the highest, remains your friend and makes cash profitable and safe.

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Looking ahead at bonds

But if you suspect cash yields will drift down and want to lock in the current rates without near-term price risk, my preference would be to infuse some dollars into individual bonds or into target-maturity funds or ETFs, such as Invesco BulletShares or iShares iBonds ETFs. If you have an account with Schwab, Fidelity or E*Trade, it is neither difficult nor costly to research, compare and buy single bonds. Then you, and not a fund manager or the Federal Reserve, control how much and when you get paid and the timing of repayment of the principal.

Normally the best method is to ladder maturities, arranging for parts (rungs) to mature in succeeding quarters or years so you both cement the best yields along the curve and know you will have money to roll over at specific times. You can use Treasuries, high-quality corporate, bank or utility bonds, municipals, high-yield bonds, or a mix of all of them. You can even request a brokerage’s bond platform to set it up for you.

I went to Schwab’s tool to ladder either Treasuries or certificates of deposit. Given the rate-curve inversion, one-year ladders have higher average yields than longer ones. A step stool of T-bills of three, six, nine and 12 months pays an average 5.25% to maturity; use CDs and you get 5.45% (as of May 31). A five-year ladder works out to 4.76% for Treasuries or 4.98% for CDs.

To beat that, of course, you can buy corporate bonds at a spread of one to two percentage points above Treasuries. If you navigate the bond listings, you can ladder one- through five-year BBB-rated bonds for an average 6% yield to maturity; I could recently order a five-step triple-B assembly from Synchrony Bank, Boeing, Ares Capital, Blue Owl and Boston Properties with an average yield to maturity of 5.98%, with none below 5.82%. It’s possible those bonds might flop around in value, but if your plan is to keep them to the end, that doesn’t matter — even if, say, Boeing were to be downgraded to junk status.

Or, you could use a mélange of BulletShares investment-grade, target-maturity corporate ETFs dated 2025 through 2029 for an average 5.3% — less than a BBB ladder due to its A and AA holdings. BulletShares charge just 0.1% and pay monthly, as oppsed to the semiannual interest payments from individual bonds. What matters either way is that you can roll over the principal on your own terms.

Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine, a monthly, trustworthy source of advice and guidance. Subscribe to help you make more money and keep more of the money you make here

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Jeffrey R. Kosnett
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Kosnett is the editor of Kiplinger's Investing for Income and writes the "Cash in Hand" column for Kiplinger's Personal Finance. He is an income-investing expert who covers bonds, real estate investment trusts, oil and gas income deals, dividend stocks and anything else that pays interest and dividends. He joined Kiplinger in 1981 after six years in newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun. He is a 1976 journalism graduate from the Medill School at Northwestern University and completed an executive program at the Carnegie-Mellon University business school in 1978.