What a Rise in Interest Rates Means for Your Portfolio

How a Changing Market Climate Can Impact Your Investment Portfolio

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Interest rates are often overlooked by investors until they begin to rise. The federal funds rate--the rate which the Prime rate is tied to--reached a historic low of 0.07% at the beginning of January 2014. Since then, it's been on a steady upward climb, hitting 1.69% as of April 2018. 

When interest rates rise, it's typically a reflection of a booming economy. The Federal Reserve raises interest rates to keep the economy from growing too rapidly or triggering a rise in the consumer price index. Rate hikes are usually spread out over a period of months or years to keep pace with economic expansion. 

For investors, rising rates can have significant portfolio implications, specifically for income investors who favor bonds. Bonds and interest rates have an inverse relationship; when rates rise for an extended period, bond prices decrease. Rising rates can directly impact bond yields, with long-term bonds that have maturity terms ranging from 10 to 30 years seeing more substantial effects. Short-term bonds may be less affected by rising rates.

Knowing how to manage your portfolio during periods of rising rates can help to mitigate any potential negative effects. The chart below shows the price-yield relation for a 10-year, 9% annual coupon bond.

What to Do When Interest Rates Go Up

Big rate gyrations, in both the short and long-term, can significantly impact the balance in your portfolio. And, as in tightrope walking, balance is critical to success in investing. 

The first step is understanding the composition of your portfolio, and how individual asset classes are likely to be impacted by rising rates. Depending on how your portfolio is structured, that's likely to include stocks, bonds, cash investments or their equivalents and real estate.

Generally speaking, rising rates do not have a direct correlation to stock prices. But, rising rates can still have an impact on stocks because higher rates affect consumers' ability to borrow and pay off debt. Loans and credit cards become more expensive as rates rise and when consumers carry higher debt levels, that can affect the amount of disposable income they have to spend on consumer goods.

When consumers spend less, that can directly impact corporate bottom lines. Shrinking revenues or reduced profit growth can, in turn, affect a company stock's performance.

Certain stock sectors can, however, benefit from rising rates as they suggest stronger economic growth. Cyclical industries such as financial institutions, industrial companies, and energy providers tend to perform better when rates rise. It's the RUST sector, which includes real estate investment trusts, utilities, consumer staples, and telecommunication, that investors must keep a close eye on when rates begin to climb. Real estate, in particular, is an asset class to watch, as rising rates can push home-buying out of reach for certain borrowers. At the same time, rising rates can be a boon for rental property owners, who may be able to charge higher rent prices if rental demand remains high.

The Impact on Bonds

Bonds are more likely to see a more immediate negative impact associated with rising rates. November 2017, for example, was the worst month for bonds in over a decade. But, it's important to keep the effects of rising rates on bonds in perspective. Stocks, by comparison, have the potential to be much more volatile than bonds. When a sustained bull market begins to look bearish, bonds can offer consistent income and dampen portfolio volatility over the long-term. In periods of uncertainty, such as the economic transition following an election or the passage of new tax laws or tariffs, bonds can be more appealing to investors who are concerned about the possibility of a correction.

If you have cash holdings in your portfolio, such as certificates of deposit, liquid savings accounts or money market instruments, rising rates mean a higher return on your investment. As rates climb, banks tend to offer correspondingly higher rates on deposit accounts. Of course, the return on these investments are typically much lower than the returns associated with stocks or mutual funds, but you're not assuming the same degree of risk as you would with a stock.

The Bottom Line

The answer to how you should be investing when interest rates rise is fairly simple: you should invest the same way you should always be investing. That means building a diversified portfolio made up of quality stocks, bonds, cash and cash equivalents that will pay you income through the ups and downs of the markets and the global economy at large. Trying to time the market or predict which way rates will go is a wasted effort; the smartest thing investors can do is mindfully manage their portfolios to limit the downside and increase potential upside as interest rates and the market fluctuate. Diversification is the best way to do that—regardless of where rates are headed for the short- or long-term.