Is lending money to a government still low risk?

By Peter Brooke - Topics: Bonds, France, Investment Risk, Investments, wealth management

If you buy a government bond, sometimes called GILTS (UK), BUNDS (Germany) or T-Bills (US), as an investment, then you are effectively lending that government money. Most portfolio managers say investors should have some bond exposure in their investment portfolios as they diversify away from other assets like shares.

How do Bonds work?
You start by buying a bond on ‘issue’ for a set issue price with a ‘promise’ to pay you back the same amount in a date in the future. In the meantime, the bond pays you a ‘coupon’ or interest in payment for you lending your money. The bonds are also traded on a ‘secondary bond market’ where the price fluctuates according to supply and demand but the coupon remains the same… this means that your interest rate changes depending on what price you pay for the bond.

You can also invest in ‘funds’ of government bonds which are managed by professional managers using new issue and secondary market bonds around the world to build a diversified portfolio… but are they as low risk as they are made out to be?

Traditionally these forms of investment have always been viewed as low risk, as governments, unlike companies or individuals can always ‘print money’ and so can always pay you back. This also means that the interest rate you receive (the coupon) will be lower than company bonds.

If we consider that RISK is the chance of loss then I would argue that these investments are no longer low risk. Right now, we are in an environment where interest rates are at all-time lows around the world, inflation is starting to bite and so the chance of an interest rate increase by central banks is high; even though the rate increases may be low.

If you are holding any bond and interest rates go up, then bond values will drop, therefore I would argue that at some point you are risking a capital loss by holding government bonds. Some analysts believe that a 1% increase in interest rates could lead to a 10% capital loss on most bonds. If this is the case are you now being compensated for this risk of loss? Well, no… interest rates on government bonds are around 1% now and so with inflation higher than 1% in most countries you are losing money on an annual basis too.

So, what can you do about it? The first option is to take a little more risk and swap your government bonds for high quality corporate bonds… the coupon will be greater and as long as the companies are in good health then they should be able to repay you at the end of the term… there are also funds of corporate bonds which diversify risk.

The corporate bond market is segmented by credit rating so be aware of the level of risk this can bring to your savings… “high yield” (Europe) or “junk bonds” (US) tend to behave more like shares.

Another option would be to diversify away from western government bonds into emerging market government bond funds… there is some extra currency risk, though this can help performance too. Finally, you can outsource the choice of the bonds you buy by using a Strategic Bond fund… this will invest in corporate, government and emerging markets bonds on a strategic basis and would be very diversified.

This article is for information only and should not be considered as advice.

Article by Peter Brooke

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