Protect Your 401(k) From Rising Interest Rates With This Plan

Now that the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the U.S., has raised interest rates a quarter of a percentage point, you may be wondering: What does this mean for my retirement account?

In the short term, as the stock and bond markets react to the increase, even a diversified retirement account may lose value, but that’s no reason to sell your investments in a panic.

While a Fed rate increase can at times drive down stock prices, and almost inevitably pushes down bond prices, investors who maintain focus on their long-term goals can ride out those dips.

Still, now is a good time to make sure your retirement savings plan is on track. In the context of rising rates, that means checking on the bonds portion of your portfolio.

“With equities, it’s hard to know what effect rising rates are going to have,” says David Blanchett, head of retirement research for Morningstar Investment Management. “When we think rising rates, the most obvious and immediate focus should be on … your fixed-income portfolio.”

Here’s a five-step plan to ensure your retirement account can handle rising rates.

1. Remember why you have bonds

Even if your investments have lost some value, remember that you’ve got bonds in your portfolio to provide returns and to act as a balance against stock market volatility. Bonds may fall, but they generally don’t fall as far or as often as stocks. And they usually, though not always, move in opposite directions: When stock prices are rising, bond prices tend to fall, and vice versa.

“Bonds are a safety hedge. If we see a stock market correction, high-quality government bonds should fare relatively well,” Blanchett says. “You want to have fixed income not just for return purposes, but also as that safe part of your portfolio.”

And before you think about exiting bonds because you expect rates to keep rising, note that it’s as difficult to predict how fast rates will rise as it is to predict the next market crash. (Wondering if the stock market will crash? The answer is yes.)

“All it takes is a little hiccup in the economy this year for the Fed to say, ‘We’re not going to raise rates,’” says Brett Horowitz, a wealth manager at Evensky & Katz / Foldes Financial Wealth Management in Coral Gables, Florida.

Instead of trying to time the bond market, focus on what you can control. One step is to make sure your investment holdings are diversified. It can take as few as three to five mutual funds to make a perfectly well-diversified retirement account.

2. Realize that higher rates aren’t all bad news

Generally, bond prices drop when interest rates rise because existing bonds’ coupon — the interest they promise to pay while you hold the bond — is lower than the coupons offered by bonds issued under the new, higher rates.

Say you buy a $1,000 bond that promises to pay 1% a year. Then, interest rates rise. As a result, new $1,000 bonds promise a 2% payout. If you want to sell your bond, you’ll need to sell it for less than its face value to be able to compete against the new higher-paying bonds.

If you hold the bond until maturity, you’ll get paid its coupon rate and recover your principal when the bond matures, assuming the issuer doesn’t default. But in retirement accounts, most of us are investing in bond mutual funds, rather than individual bonds. In bond funds, the manager is likely buying and selling bonds on the secondary market. That’s where price fluctuations matter — and how your bonds can lose value.

While you might hear market prognosticators talking about the danger of holding bonds when rates are marching higher, they’re generally speaking to the problem faced by investors who only want to sell their bonds. They indeed may lose money.

But long-term investors have less to worry about. While higher interest rates do mean short-term price drops, they also mean that your bonds mutual fund over time will buy higher-rate bonds, bringing higher interest payments back to you.

3. Revisit the risks of cash

As interest rates rise, savings and money market accounts start to look more appealing, because they’ll pay you a bit more to stash your cash than they used to. And they don’t seem to have that pesky problem of losing value. What you’re not seeing is inflation’s big bite.

“You get into cash initially because something scary is happening. You feel great for a while, but then you run into inflation,” Horowitz says. Cash is “a horrible long-term investment. It’s not going to help anyone achieve their goals if they need to earn a return on their money.”

4. Check your bond holdings

Some bonds are riskier than others. In a rising-rate environment, bonds with long maturities are likely to drop the most in price. If you have a high proportion of long-term bonds — bonds with terms 10 years or longer — it might be worth shifting out of those, Blanchett says.

“I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for investors to try to start timing the market and moving across different durations,” Blanchett says. (Duration is a complex measure, but, roughly speaking, it is the average maturity of a bond fund’s holdings.)

“That being said, I think it does make sense today to have a little lower duration than you might on average, because rates are likely to rise in the near future,” he says.

The name of your bond fund should indicate average maturity, but if it doesn’t, read the fund’s description. Horowitz says his company avoids bonds with maturities over 10 years.

The good news? Blanchett says most workplace retirement plans don’t use funds with a duration over seven years.

5. Check your fees

Now that you’re thinking about your 401(k), it’s a great time to look at the fees you’re paying — on all of your mutual funds. Your 401(k) plan may charge other fees, but making sure you’re in low-cost mutual funds is a great way to build retirement success.

Log in to your retirement account provider’s website and click on each investment. Look for the expense ratio — that’s an annual fee expressed as a percentage of your investment — and make sure it’s less than about 0.50%.

If you can’t find any low-cost funds in your 401(k), then invest enough in the plan to get your company match and consider opening a traditional IRA or Roth IRA so you can invest in as many low-cost mutual funds as you could possibly want. Read more on 401(k)s versus IRAs.

Andrea Coombes is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @andreacoombes.

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