Short-Term Bonds Funds vs. Money Market Funds

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At a time when money market funds are yielding virtually nothing, many investors have looked to short-term bond funds as a way to boost the yield on the portion of their savings they want to keep safe. However, investors need to be aware that short-term bond funds carry a higher degree of risk and cannot always be used as a money market fund substitute.

Short-Term Bond Funds

Short-term bond funds typically invest in bonds that mature in 1–3 years. The limited amount of time until maturity means that interest rate risk—or the risk that rising interest rates will cause the value of the fund’s principal value to decline—is low compared to intermediate- and long-term bond funds. Still, even the most conservative short-term bonds funds will have a small degree of share price fluctuation.

Risk Differences

Since short-term bond funds tend to be lower risk, many investors use the funds as a higher-yielding alternative to money market funds. Money market funds are the lowest risk option on the fixed income risk-reward spectrum, and short-term bond funds are generally considered to be the next step up the ladder in terms of both risks and return potential.

Picking Between the Two

Short-term bond funds are generally the better option, but you must know exactly what you’re buying. While short-term bond funds have low interest rate risk, they can have other types of risk depending on the securities they hold in their portfolios. Many funds invest in high-quality corporate bonds or mortgage-backed securities, but this isn’t always the case. Investors learned this the hard way during the financial crisis of 2008 when many funds that had put too much money in mortgage-related securities experienced huge drops in their share prices.

Short-term doesn’t necessarily mean low risk, so read the material from the issuing company very carefully to make sure the managers haven’t loaded up the portfolio with complicated international investments or low-quality corporate bonds. These are the types of securities that can blow up if the investment environment sours. Since the Federal Reserve hasn't raised interest rates in a while, it’s easy to forget that short-term bonds will typically experience share price declines during the periods when the Fed is raising rates. The declines will be modest in comparison to other types of funds, but money market funds won't experience any downside at all.

Short-term bond funds can offer a decent yield advantage relative to money market funds—anywhere from 0.5%–2%, depending on their underlying investments—and this can add up over time. As a result, many investors who are in a position to take on the added risk of short-term bonds can allocate a portion of their portfolios to the asset class instead of money market funds. If you need to use the money within a year or have an extremely low tolerance for risk, money market funds are the better option.

Ultrashort Bond Funds

Investors have a growing number of options within the universe of ultrashort bond funds. The funds typically invest in bonds with maturities of between six months and one year. This represents a longer average maturity than money market funds, which typically focus on debts with maturities of a week or less, and short-term bond funds, where maturities tend to run between 1–3 years.

How to Invest in Short-Term Bonds

Investors who want to allocate some of their portfolios to short-term bonds have several options to choose from. In addition to mutual funds such as Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index Fund (VBIRX), T. Rowe Price Short-Term Bond Fund (PRWBX), and Lord Abbett Short Duration Income Fund (LALDX), there are a growing number of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that focus on the sector. Many short-term bond mutual funds offer check-writing privileges, as money market funds do, while ETFs do not. However, it is not recommended that investors use short-term bond funds for check writing because it creates a significant tax headache. Among the largest ETFs that invest in short-term bonds are:

  • iShares Barclays 1-3 Year Treasury Bond Fund (ticker: SHY)
  • iShares Barclays 1-3 Year Credit Bond Fund (CSJ)
  • Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF (BSV)
  • Vanguard Short-Term Corporate Bond ETF (VCSH)
  • iShares Barclays Short Treasury Bond Fund (SHV)
  • SPDR Nuveen Barclays Capital Short Term Municipal Bond ETF (SHM)
  • SPDR Barclays Capital Short Term Corporate Bond (SCPB)
  • PIMCO 1-5 Year US TIPS Index Fund (STPZ)
  • iShares S&P Short Term National Muni Bond (SUB)
  • Barclays 0-5 Year TIPS Bond Fund (STIP)