New Rules for Success

Jonathan Clements

FOUR DECADES OF falling inflation and declining interest rates have come to an abrupt halt—and that’s changed the calculus on a fistful of financial decisions.

Want to make smarter money choices in the months and years ahead? Here are seven new rules for financial success:

1. Carrying debt is less foolish—in some cases. Thanks to inflation, families can now repay the money they’ve borrowed with depreciated dollars. That won’t help you with credit card debt, where interest rates have soared along with inflation, thus ensuring that carrying a card balance continues to be the height of financial foolishness.

But if you have a fixed-rate mortgage from before 2022 or a low-interest car loan, your debt is shrinking rapidly in inflation-adjusted terms, thanks to the 7.7% spike in the Consumer Price Index over the past 12 months. The implication: Don’t rush to rid yourself of these debts.

2. Buying bonds beats paying down older mortgages. I’ve long been an advocate of paying down debt, including mortgage debt, because the interest rate owed was usually higher than the interest rate you could earn by buying high-quality bonds.

But that’s likely not true for anyone who took out a mortgage before 2022. Got a fixed-rate mortgage that’s costing you 3%? Now that 10-year Treasury notes are yielding 3.7%, up from 1.5% at year-end 2021, and corporates are paying even more, you’re probably better off buying high-quality bonds than prepaying your mortgage. What if you took out a mortgage this year, which might be costing you 6% to 7% in interest? Making extra-principal payments is still a smart strategy.

3. Asset location matters once again. When bond yields dropped to minuscule levels in 2020, some financial experts noted that holding taxable bonds in a regular taxable account was no longer a problem, because the tax owed on the interest received would be tiny. But with bond yields climbing along with inflation, it’s time once again to keep your bonds—except for municipals, of course—in a retirement account, so you don’t have to pay income taxes each year on the interest you earn.

4. Extending bond maturities is more appealing. For the bond portion of my portfolio, I’ve long stuck with a mix of short-term conventional and inflation-indexed government bonds. But I’m toying with shifting some money into intermediate-term bonds.

To be sure, the yield curve remains inverted, with two-year Treasury notes kicking off more interest than 10-year Treasurys. That’s prompted some folks to declare that “cash is no longer trash” and that the place to be is money market funds, Treasury bills and short-term certificates of deposit. Problem is, today’s high short-term rates may prove fleeting.

Whenever the Federal Reserve decides inflation is under control or that the bigger threat is a recession, it’ll start cutting short-term interest rates. Result: Today’s handsome cash yields will disappear. Investors might imagine they can shift into bonds at that juncture—but, by then, intermediate- and longer-term yields will likely also have dropped. The upshot: If you want to lock in today’s more generous yields, consider swapping your cash for intermediate-term bonds in the months ahead.

5. Bonds again offer the chance to beat inflation. We can’t know for sure what will happen with interest rates and inflation over the next few years. But we do know it’s now possible to outpace inflation with bonds—if you purchase inflation-indexed Treasury bonds and Series I savings bonds.

Today, 10-year inflation-indexed Treasurys are paying 1.4% more than inflation, while Series I bonds are currently offering 0.4% above inflation. By contrast, until recently, Series I savings bonds offered no interest over and above inflation, while inflation-indexed Treasurys sported a negative after-inflation yield.

6. Selling a home has become costlier. It isn’t simply that you might need to slash your asking price to find a buyer amid today’s much higher mortgage rates. On top of that, if you have a mortgage, selling and then buying could mean both giving up your current low-interest-rate mortgage and taking on a much higher-rate mortgage to purchase the new place.

7. Future profits are less valuable. As interest rates have climbed, banking on the distant future has lost its appeal. Risking money on an investment that might not pay off for 10 or 20 years—and might never pay off—may have seemed okay when bonds barely yielded 1%. But now that you can pocket a 5%-plus yield on many high-quality bonds, a high-risk investment has to be awfully compelling to attract investors.

Result? Goodbye, cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens. What about growth stocks? Their potential for hefty corporate earnings down the road now seems like a more distant promise—and one that might be broken. By contrast, value stocks, with their healthy current earnings and often high dividend yields, have become far more appealing. After all, why speculate on the future when you can collect a handsome dividend check today?

Jonathan Clements is the founder and editor of HumbleDollar. Follow him on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook, and check out his earlier articles.

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