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Which portfolio tracking tool to use

New Monevator readers often ask what’s the best way to track and manage their portfolios.

Old hands may rock a custom spreadsheet. One that’s more sophisticated than the software aboard an Apollo spacecraft.

However I’d happily recommend Morningstar’s Portfolio Manager. It’s a free online portfolio tracking tool that does the important things well.

This portfolio tracker automates returns for a wide range of investments. You can easily dial-up funds and ETFs, shares, and investment trusts from its enormous database.

All you have to do is input your trades.

With Portfolio Manager you can track your performance in XIRR money-weighted or unitisation time-weighted mode.

You can also assess your progress against an index, and ever-popular time-frames, such as the last ten years, year-to-date – or even yesterday.

The tool comes courtesy of Morningstar – the financial data powerhouse. It’s number-crunching is widely white-labelled1, including by a number of UK platforms.

Portfolio tracking features

Let’s run through the main features of Portfolio Manager. (You can see Monevator’s Slow & Steady portfolio in the pics below).

Snapshot

Portfolio management tool: snapshot screen

Behold the at-a-glance overview screen! Here you’ll find your investments’ price, market value, number of shares, and asset allocation percentage.

This snapshot lets you maintain a unified view of your investments. Especially handy if they’re diversified across multiple brokers.

Now check out the ‘Add a Transaction to This Portfolio’ zone towards the bottom. Woah!

This is where you fill in your latest trades from your contract notes.

The portfolio tracking tool then automatically updates your portfolio in line with your market machinations.

Performance

Portfolio management tool: performance screen

This is my favourite screen. (Okay, I don’t get out much, pandemic or no.)

With the Performance tab, you can watch your portfolio race your benchmark on the graph at the top.

Here we see the bond-heavy Slow & Steady portfolio (green line) is lagging the FTSE All-Share (blue line) this year.

The same Tron Light Cycle battle plays out in numbers in the Trailing Returns section.

Total Return is your portfolio’s time-weighted, unitised annual performance. The Investor likes this metric. (So does the fund industry.)

Personal Return is your portfolio’s money-weighted, annualised performance. It’s also known as the Geometric Return or Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). This is what I care about.

The Holding section shows the time-weighted return contribution of the individual investments you currently own. It’s fascinating to see how strategic asset allocation decisions have played out over the years.

Some expectations are confirmed, such as equities beating bonds.

Other predictions have been confounded. Like, for instance, prior calls for a decade of poor returns for US equities. (The US market was the driving force behind the stellar results of the Vanguard FTSE Developed World and Global Small Cap funds).

Note, Morningstar’s returns are nominal. Subtract average inflation to get your real2 returns.

Gain/Loss

Portfolio management tool: gain and loss screen

The Gain/Loss tab shows you the contribution made by every investment you’ve ever held. It’s quite the trip down memory lane. Especially if your past is strewn with ten-baggers and questionable buys you regret like kipper ties.

Fundamental

Portfolio management tool: fundamentals screen

Sometimes I check Morningstar’s Price to Earnings Forward guidance (P/E Forward) to see which investments look good value. Lower numbers are better, in theory. But I don’t really trust this metric.

UK equities looks relatively cheap. If nothing else, that makes me feel less queasy about rebalancing into the FTSE All-Share.

Transactions

Portfolio management tool: transactions screen

You can input your trades, review every change back to the year dot, record dividends, split shares, and set up regular purchases.

Tracking device

I’ve skipped past functionality I don’t use, such as email alerts. I’ve also ignored the extended play you unlock with a Morningstar subscription.

The freemium model gives you five portfolios gratis. That’s great if you’re managing multiple allocations on behalf of family members, or you’re juggling different investing objectives.

(You could use a slot to peer into a parallel universe where you didn’t sell that golden ticket. Although that way madness lies.)

Boring!

Staring at the screenshots, scornful of the shabby interface?

Congratulations, you’ve spotted one of Portfolio Manager’s best features.

This tool is not mobile-optimised. Indeed Morningstar hasn’t made a single UX improvement in over a decade.

It’s not compelling, it’s not addictive, and I don’t want to sneak a peek every ten minutes…

…and such old school clunkiness is an advantage when Silicon Valley is using every psychological trick in the book to bend my attention towards its fruit machines.

Portfolio Manager harks back to a more utilitarian Internet age. An era when tools did one thing well enough, and not every app let you order pizza and ethereum.

Anyway, I’ve used Portfolio Manager for well over ten years. I’ve never regretted it. My manual spreadsheet now gathers dust.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

  1. That is sold to and rebranded by third-parties. []
  2. Inflation-adjusted. []
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How to save money on travel

Image of campervan to illustrate the idea of cheap travel saving money

This piece on how to save money on travel is by The Treasurer from Team Monevator. Check back every Monday for more fresh perspectives on personal finance and investing from the Team.

Since joining the corporate world, I’ve spent less than I’ve earned. It comes naturally to me, as does a desire to save 30-50% of my net income each month.

Even when I do spend money, I aim to get as much value as I can. I avoid impulse spending. I don’t buy the latest gadgets or the most expensive phone.

Being an avid reader of Monevator, I know I’m not alone in this philosophy!

Yet I wouldn’t consider myself a tightwad. There’s a balance to be had between becoming financially independent and enjoying your prime years.

For this reason, I mainly focus my frivolous spending on one thing – solo travel.

At this point I should acknowledge that solo travel isn’t for everyone. That’s why I’m not going to suggest it ‘broadens the mind’, or helps you ‘find yourself’. Such comments can be rather tiresome.

Yet for me, the more I travel, the more I convince myself that it’s one of the best ways for me to spend my money. In terms of the cost to enjoyment ratio, nothing comes close.

Cheap accommodation…

As you can probably guess, my idea of travel isn’t five-star hotels or first class plane tickets. I’m more of a budget airline, bargain hostel type.

Happily, while I’d probably enjoy a few nights in a luxury resort, one of the big draws of travel for me is meeting people and sharing experiences. So I don’t see opting for a hostel over a hotel as much of a compromise.

Luckily, hostels are generally cheap. I’ve stayed in tonnes of them across six continents, with prices ranging from £5 to £25 per night, depending on the country. To book I typically use Hostelworld, but I often check with a hostel directly to see if they can give a discount.

If a shared room isn’t for you, many hostels offer cheap private rooms, too.

When I say I stay in hostels, many people flinch at the thought. Yet stay in a hostel with a good rating (at least eight out of ten on Hostelworld or TripAdvisor) and I’m confident any negative preconceptions will vanish.

That said, I won’t criticise anyone who opts for a cheap hotel or AirBnb instead.

…and bargain flights

As for getting there, I use scraper services such as Skyscanner. I play around with the ‘whole month’ option to maximise the chances of a deal.

If I’m unsure about where to travel to – or if I’m in a bargain-hunting mood – I’ll often select the destination as ‘everywhere.’ This shows the cheapest places to fly to in any given month. It’s led me to a £20 weekend return to Timișoara, Romania, and a £30 trip to Bydgoszcz, Poland. (A hidden gem!)

If I’m planning a long trip, I’ll look into open-jaw flights. This involves flying into one airport and out of another.

Open-jaw flights often don’t cost any more than a typical return ticket. And they can save the need for backtracking, which can save both time and money.

Google Flights is good for playing around with open-jaw options. Use its ‘multi-city’ drop down box.

More tips on how to save money on travel

With the biggies out of the way, here are eight more personal finance travel tips to help you save some dollars, dinar, or dong when you next go abroad.

Get yourself a top travel card

If you use your normal debit or credit card while abroad, you’re likely paying for the privilege. Many cards charge a non-sterling transaction fee every time you use your card – typically 3% – as well as charging for overseas cash withdrawals.

To avoid these hefty fees, bag yourself a specialist card with no extra charges when you use it abroad.

If you’re happy to open a new bank account, Starling Bank doesn’t have any fees for spending on your card abroad. It also offers fee-free overseas cash withdrawals. You can make six withdrawals or withdraw up to £300 each day. That should be sufficient for most of us.

Alternatively, Virgin Money’s new ‘M’ account offers fee-free overseas usage, with no spending or overseas cash withdrawal fees. As an incentive, it’ll give you a £150 Virgin experience day voucher if you switch to the account.

If instead of opening a bank account you’d prefer a credit card, then Halifax Clarity (19.9% rep APR) offers fee-free spending and withdrawals overseas. Plus if you use the card within 90 days, Halifax will pay you a cool £20. You will have to pay daily interest on cash withdrawals though, so it’s best to spend on the card if you can.

Barclaycard’s Rewards Visa (22.9% rep APR) also offers fee-free spending and cash withdrawals. Plus it pays 0.25% cashback on most spending.

If you do opt for a credit card, always, always set-up a direct debit to repay your balance in full. That way you avoid paying interest on purchases. If you don’t, you’ll wipe out any savings you make from using them abroad.

Bag a free GHIC for European trips

You can get a Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) provided you live in the UK. Holding one entitles you to the same medical treatment in public hospitals as a normal citizen living in the EU. If you fall ill while on a European trip, having a GHIC in your pocket could be a literal life-saver. 

Applying for a GHIC is free. If you haven’t already got one, you can apply on the NHS website.

The GHIC is a replacement for the old EHIC (European Health Insurance Card), introduced as a result of Brexit. If you already have a EHIC then you can continue to use it until it expires.

Having a GHIC does not necessarily mean you’ll receive free medical treatment abroad. Some EU countries require citizens to pay for medical treatment. Having a GHIC only entitles you to hospital access at the same rate as locals.

That’s why the GHIC shouldn’t be used as an alternative to travel insurance. Which leads me to the next tip!

Get good travel insurance

Travel insurance is often seen as a grudge purchase – a necessarily evil. But heading overseas without travel insurance is like driving without a seat belt.

Anyone can have an accident while abroad. Say you get run over in a country with extortionate prices for medical treatment, such as the USA. If you don’t have travel insurance, you can forget about retiring early. You could instead face financial ruin.

The good news is that travel insurance can be relatively cheap, especially if you travel often and opt for a multi-trip policy. There’s no set policy that’s best for all. Use a price comparison site to compare the options.

Treat yourself to a free airport lounge pass

While not for everyone, the American Express Gold credit card gives two free airport lounge passes to cardholders. You can use these at more than 1,300 lounges across the world.

While not as luxurious as special airline lounges, they do provide a pleasant place to sit as you wait for your flight. You’re often treated to free food and drink, too.

The card also gives ‘Preferred Rewards Points’ as and when you spend on the card. This includes a 20,000 bonus if you spend £3,000 in your first three months. The card has a £140 annual fee, but the first year is fee-free. You don’t have to pay anything if you cancel before the anniversary of the first year.

As with any rewards credit card, set up a direct debit to pay off your balance in full each month. That way you can avoid having to pay extortionate interest. (56.6% rep APR variable).

I’ve used this deal myself and found it straightforward. For anyone flying out of London, the Luton lounge is a lot nicer than its Stansted cousin. You can visit Lounge Review to compare lounges.

Always pay in the local currency

When overseas, you’ll often be offered the chance to pay in pounds instead of the local currency. While this may seem like a kind offer, it is really a wheeze known as ‘dynamic currency conversion.’ It means the overseas retailer does the conversion for you, often at a terrible rate.

As long as you have a specialist debit or credit card, you’ll be far better off using that to pay in the local currency instead.

If you need cash, use a comparison tool

I’m a fan of going cash-free wherever possible. If I need cash – which can be near-unavoidable in some countries – I’ll use my Starling card to withdraw foreign currency while overseas. The biggest challenge is finding an overseas ATM that doesn’t charge.

Many people do prefer to have a wad of foreign notes in their wallet before heading away. If that’s you, don’t make the mistake of defaulting to your local Post Office. Instead use the services of a travel money comparison tool that will list the most competitive rates.

MoneySavingExpert’s TravelMoneyMax is the best one I’ve come across.

Plan your car hire

If you need to hire a car while abroad then it’s cheaper to book early, rather than paying at the airport desk.

It’s also worthwhile to decline any top-up insurance you’re offered when you collect your car. Instead sort this insurance out yourself through a separate policy to save money. MoneyMaxim is a popular service for this.

Consider a frequent flyer scheme

I’ve done the maths and joining a frequent flyer scheme isn’t worth it for me. I hunt down budget airlines and jump on promotional airfares as and when they arise, regardless of airline.

However if you often fly a particular route or you stick to one airline for whatever reason, do take the time to look into some frequent flyer schemes to see if you can rack up some air miles.

Research is the way to save money on travel

While I hope the above travel tips will be useful to the health of your wallet or purse when you’re overseas, the number one rule of planning the trip is to research before jetting off.

For instance, knowing the best way to get from the airport to your accommodation can be a real time and money saver.

I usually ask myself the following questions:

  • Does Uber (or another taxi app) work in the country I’m flying to?
  • Does Uber work from the airport? Or do I have to walk out of the airport onto a public road?
  • Is the public bus or metro from the airport easy to use?
  • Does local transport accept card payments?
  • Are there any common scams to be aware of?

While you may think these questions are simplistic, I once had a friend visit me in London who decided to jump in a black cab from Gatwick Airport to central London. I heard similar stories of a couple getting a £100 taxi from Reykjavik airport to downtown. (Iceland can be notoriously expensive).

Other cost-cutting tips to bear in mind include heading away during off-peak times, traveling to places that don’t require a costly visa, and planning your accommodation in advance to avoid having to fork out for the last empty hotel room in the city.

If you’ve any tips I’ve missed or you’ve employed any of the above with success, then I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

You can see all The Treasurer’s articles in their dedicated archive.

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Weekend reading: Bonfire of the magic money trees

Weekend reading logo

What caught my eye this week.

A bad week for those who long for sunlit uplands swathed in magic money trees.

National insurance rates up. Dividend tax rates up. The triple-lock on pensions suspended.

It’s good that the government has at least made a stab at fixing the social care crisis, with a new cap on lifetime costs.

But otherwise the best that can be said about this week’s machinations is that nearly everyone has something to moan about.

Time to pay

Credulous people who voted to leave the EU on the promise of a £350m a week ‘dividend’ for the NHS – £17bn a year – might wonder why their incomes are now being docked in part to fund the health service.

Those who saw in Tory Brexiteers a plan for Singapore-on-the-Thames might question why taxes on wealth creators are rising and UK graduates will soon face a marginal tax rate of effectively 50% [search result].

Meanwhile those on the left – for whom even the unprecedented hundreds of billions of public money spent on Covid relief measures wasn’t enough – have been reminded that one way or another the bill always come due.

And those who argue – with some justification – that today’s low rates mean it’d be better for the government to keep borrowing rather than hiking taxes are re-learning that politics doesn’t work that way.

All this while the economy stops and starts, supply chains snag, and the US return to work stalls.

A rebuke to those who thought we could just put daily life into suspended hibernation via repeated lockdowns without deep economic consequences.

Tax take

None of this is to argue that lockdowns, the pausing of the triple-lock, extra money for the NHS, or even Brexit was necessarily a bad thing.

Well not today, anyway.

I’m just highlighting that this week’s reality check ought to be felt more widely than simply in one’s (digital) wallet.

It’s a theme picked up by Merryn Somerset-Webb in the FT [search result]:

You might be beginning to feel the sands shifting slightly beneath your feet.

Nothing is quite what it used to be — or supposed to be.

Indeed. When even the cosseted pensioner class starts complaining, the times are surely a-changing.

For us as investors of course, it’s (always) time to take evasive action.

This latest mishmash of tax measures makes things yet more complicated.

But nobody is more interested than you are in getting yourself through this tax maze.

(And yes, National Insurance is just income tax with better PR).

Hands off my castle

Make strenuous efforts to fill your ISA to avoid being taxed on your gains again later.

(Probably) only after contributing all you can to your pension, to truly soften the blow.

But when we recover from this week of tax whammies, we might ask ourselves why those owning property outside of a limited company were spared a hit to their income.

Or why as ever Government policy is hellbent on protecting those who would inherit a family home from the impact of social care costs.

All at the expense of young people from less-moneyed backgrounds who stand no chance of ever buying their own home.

It’s all very feudal.

Most Britons are against inheritance tax paid by those who’ve done nothing to earn it.

Yet they will shake their fist at this week’s tax hike on others struggling just to get by – whether young wage earners or pensioners living off dividends.

I suppose we can’t see the wood for our own magic money trees.

[continue reading…]

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How to read a bond fund webpage

How to read a bond fund webpage post image

This is my take on the important elements of a bond fund / ETF1 webpage.

By running through the info that I pay careful attention to, my hope is that new investors will find it easier to understand bonds and to do due diligence on an asset class that many find confusing.

  • If you’re doubtful about the wisdom of owning bonds, learn more to see why they may still be a good investment.
  • If you’re truly a bond refusenik you can also check out my equity-orientated article on how to read a fund factsheet.

Diving into a bond fund

I’ll illustrate my approach using the webpage for iShares Global Government Bond ETF (IGLH).

iShares fund webpages are pretty good overall. They contain much that you need as well as plenty that you don’t.

Other fund providers offer similar fare, but the data may be labelled differently.

If any of the information below is AWOL from a bond fund webpage or factsheet then I mark it down versus other candidates on my shortlist.

Fund name and overview

Fund names can reveal quite a lot of information, which makes up for them being about as memorable as a robot’s serial number.

Our fund names explained piece reveals what’s in a boring name.

Several funds may share a similar name but actually invest in materially different sub-asset classes.

It’s like going to a big family gathering, when you’re age seven, and meeting an endless parade of uncles and aunts. They all seem friendly but you’re mystified as to how they relate to you.

A fund family tree can reveal a hierarchy of spin-offs (known as share classes) that differ by currency, cost, income distribution, and so on.

Note down the ISIN number, SEDOL, or ticker. This way you can guarantee you’ll get the same product when you later search for it via your broker’s platform. Don’t rely on the fund name.

iShares have a nice dropdown menu just under the fund name that reveals your choice of share classes.

Vanguard doesn’t always list its funds’ available share classes, but the passive giant typically offers both Accumulating and Income flavours. Check your broker or dealing platform to see if it offers the version you’re after.

Investment objective

Check the fund’s description mentions the sub-asset class you expect the fund to track.

For example: ‘developed world government bonds’.

I also look for a phrase like ‘…tracks the performance of an index…’ to affirm I’m definitely dealing with an index tracker.

Performance

Past performance is not the big deal many people think it is.

You can’t tell anything from one-year returns and not much from three years.

Five years gives you a sense of how well the fund matches up against its rivals. Ten years is far better, and about as much data as you can expect for free.

But what really matters is your strategic asset allocation and the role your fund fulfills in that.

If you decide an asset class belongs in your portfolio, then make sure:

  • Your fund properly captures that market – see the benchmark index section below.
  • It’s not outclassed by its peers. (I’ve explained before how I use past performance to compare the best bond funds on the market.)

It’s irrelevant that a particular global government bond fund lost 1% over the last three years, provided other global government bond funds lost much the same.

Don’t worry if your fund trailed a competitor by 0.5% in one year. Subtle differences in index composition and fund methodology can easily explain that away. Your fund may well beat the pack next year.

However if your pick consistently underperforms its near-rivals by that amount or worse, on a five-year view, then investigate why.

If your fund always lags when you compare like with like, then switch to another.

Key facts

iShares’ ‘Key Facts’ mostly just need a quick eyeball to check nothing is amiss.

Net assets or Assets Under Management (AUM)

Small funds are vulnerable to closure if they don’t attract enough investment cash. Assume new funds will get 12-months to prove themselves profitable.

Anything over £100 million in assets under management should be okay.

Remember you don’t lose your money if your fund closes. Its underlying assets still retain their market value.

However your shares will be sold on closure of the fund. That could trigger Capital Gains Tax, if your fund isn’t tucked inside your tax shelters.

You also run the risk of an adverse market movement when you’re sitting in cash.

Your provider may offer two AUM figures.

A larger one labelled ‘fund’ or ‘umbrella’ is liable to be the sum of the master fund’s share classes.

Go with the smaller figure, which concerns your particular sub-fund.

Currency

Your exposure to currency risk depends on the currency your fund’s underlying assets are priced in.

Remember, you are still taking currency risk if you choose a GBP (British Pound) version of an unhedged fund that invests in overseas securities.

If your global bond fund holds US, Japanese, and German securities, say, then you’re exposed to the pound’s exchange rate versus those country’s currencies.

Terms like base currency, denominated currency, or fund or share class currency refer to the currency your fund reports in. These are simply accounting terms.

Trading currency means the currency the fund is bought and sold in on your local stock exchange. That makes no difference to currency risk but choosing GBP can save currency conversion fees.

You’re only shielded from currency risk if your bond fund explicitly states it is hedged to GBP or if it only holds securities priced in pounds. 

Ongoing Charge Figure (OCF) / Total Expense Ratio (TER)

Your fund’s headline cost is a key metric. Cheap is good and less is more when it comes to fees.

But neither the OCF nor TER include all charges due. 

Fund providers routinely deny us the complete picture because they’re not harried into full disclosure by the regulator.

For instance, transaction costs add up like baggage fees on a budget airline flight.

I give bonus transparency points to providers who publish transaction costs on their fund’s webpages. Xtrackers does this, for instance.

Vanguard scores half marks because it publishes its extra expenses – but only in an obscure PDF squirrelled away on its website. 

If iShares does us a similar service then it keeps it quiet like a shameful family secret.

You can uncover the impact of undisclosed charges using this tracking difference technique.

Product Structure / Replication Method

Physical means your ETF actually holds the assets it claims to track.

Duh, yeah. So what?

Well, you’d think that it’s de rigueur but it’s not…

Because in contrast synthetic means your ETF typically does not hold the assets it aims to track.

Instead, investors’ cash is ploughed into a derivative that matches the return of the fund’s index. 

Synthetic ETFs get to the same place as physical funds by way of ever-popular financial engineering.

The term synthetic has an image problem nowadays. Hence these synthetic ETFs are usually branded as ‘indirect replication’ or ‘swap’.

But I don’t particularly discriminate between physical and synthetic because both types usually come bundled with counterparty risk, anyway.

Methodology

Sampled or optimised means the fund doesn’t hold every last security covered by its index. Very few funds do because small and illiquid securities rack up costs while making little difference to your returns.

You can use tracking difference to test whether the methodology’s deviation from the index has historically cost much by way of return.

Securities lending return

Many funds lend out your securities to short sellers (including active fund providers that often neglect to mention it, incidentally).

Your provider’s lending policy should be published. Some portion of the fees earned may be paid to the fund, which should nudge up its returns.

Securities lending exposes physical funds to counterparty risk, however.

I don’t worry about this risk but I’m aware of it. I think of it as a tie-breaker situation.

Ideally, my choice will keep its securities under lock and key. If it lends them out, then I want the highest possible share of the profits. 

But if one fund lends and regularly beats my other candidates then yeah, I’ll probably take jam today. 

Domicile

Where is the fund based and regulated? Most ETFs are quartered in Ireland and Luxembourg. The UK regularly crops up for funds, as opposed to ETFs.

A UK domicile offers you the comfort of the FSCS compensation scheme.

Ireland and Luxembourg’s equivalents are much less generous.

Ireland’s double-taxation treaties give it a withholding tax edge over Luxembourg.

Benchmark index

Trackers track indexes. That’s their job so make sure you get the right match. Google the index and read its factsheet.

Think about:

  • What market does the index track?
  • Does that market adequately capture the asset class returns you’re after?
  • Is the index widely used by the industry? If not, why not?
  • Can you find good information about the index?
  • Is the index diversified? If not, does that matter?
  • Do the index holdings overlap with other funds you own? That can mean the fund is redundant in your portfolio.
  • Does the index guard against over-concentration by capping the weight of its constituents? If not, do its rivals?

Other Key Facts

Risk rating – I don’t think this offers much in the way of genuine information. Still, if you think that you’re buying a low-risk fund but the rating indicates Indiana Jones-style adventures ahead… that could be a sign something is wrong. 

UK reporting status (UKFRS) – Check it’s a yes, otherwise you may pay excessive tax.

UCITS – Again, we’re after a straight yes. This is comforting EU regulation that was transposed into UK law after Brexit.

Use of incomeDistributing or Income means interest will be paid into the account of your choice – handy for retirees. Accumulating or capitalising means the fund automatically reinvests your payouts – handy for accumulators.

Minimum investment – Don’t be thrown if this says something like £100,000. That is directed at institutional investors, not us. Look for the product on your investment platform. If stocked then you’ll be able to invest the minimum decreed by your broker – £50 or whatever.

Portfolio characteristics

These elements are key to understanding what you’re getting from a bond fund:

Yield to maturity (YTM)

This is the annualised return you’d expect to receive if you invest in a bond and hold it to maturity (accounting for its market price and the remaining interest payments, which are assumed to be reinvested at the same rate).

Providers will often display other yields but yield to maturity is the only one you really need. That’s because you can use it to compare similar bonds that vary by price, maturity date, and coupon rate.

The Investor wrote a classic piece about the most common bond yields.

Maturity

We often talk about short, intermediate, and long bonds on Monevator. Those lengths refer to the average maturity dates of a bond fund’s holdings:

  • Short-dated bond funds are the least risky, least rewarding and least sensitive to interest rate changes.
  • Long-dated bond funds are the most risky, most rewarding (potentially) and most sensitive to interest rate changes.
  • Intermediate bond funds sit somewhere in the middle. They hold short and long bonds, along with medium maturities, in a diversified portfolio.

See the duration metric below for a practical measure of your fund’s interest rate risk.

  • Short bond average maturities are five years and less.
  • Long bond average maturities are 15 years and more.
  • Americans think of five to seven years as the intermediate maturity sweet spot. But gilts skew longer.

Long bond funds should have a higher yield to maturity and duration than short bond funds of a similar type.

Duration

Duration can be used to gauge your bond fund’s sensitivity to interest rate changes:

As a rule of thumb, a bond fund with a duration of 7 will:

  • Lose 7% for every 1% rise in its yield to maturity.
  • Gain 7% for every 1% fall in yield to maturity.

Whatever your bond fund’s duration number, that’s roughly how big a gain or loss you can expect for every 1% change in its yield.

Duration helps you assess the risk you’re taking, assuming you have a strong opinion about the future direction of bond interest rates. 

There are multiple types of duration but it’s not worth losing sleep over the slight differences between them.

This piece on bond prices helps explain how interest rate changes impact bond yields.

Credit rating / credit quality

Credit quality is a verdict on the financial strength of the bond issuer as delivered by the main credit rating agencies.

The lower the rating, the greater the perceived risk that the borrower will fail to pay their debts.

All things being equal, investors demand higher interest rates from weak borrowers.

Annoyingly, many providers don’t publish an average credit rating for their fund’s holdings. Kudos to Vanguard who does.

So when you’re parsing your fund’s credit quality chart, be mindful of these thresholds:

  • AAA is tip top.
  • AA- and above is considered to be high-quality.
  • BBB- and above is investment grade.

Anything below investment grade is junk. (That’s the industry term, not my opinion. Well, not exactly! A less evocative term for junk is ‘high-yield’).

Only investment grade to high-quality funds belong in the defensive side of your asset allocation.

Investors flee to quality in a crisis. So that’s when you need your bond funds to come through.

Beware – Some naughty providers feed you the index’s key characteristics and not the fund’s. That’s a serious transparency transgression.

Sustainability characteristics

Given the finance industry is deluged with greenwash, I don’t pay much heed to self-reported sustainability metrics.

If you think that sounds glib then please read this Monevator piece on the complexity of Environmental, Social, and Governance investing.

Here’s my take from the days when trying to do good was called Socially Responsible Investing

Holdings

I look at the Top 10 holdings to ensure they tally with what I think the fund does.

I’ll also check the Top 10’s percentage weights to verify my pick isn’t over-concentrated in comparison to its alternatives.

A diversification once-over isn’t necessary for gilt funds. All gilts are high-quality bonds priced in pounds. There’s no need to look under the bonnet.

I also stop short of wading through spreadsheets that name-check hundreds of holdings. I’m not qualified to judge individual securities.

What’s more, I’m not a masochist. This article not withstanding. 

Exposure breakdowns

Reading the portfolio breakdown section is like checking the ingredients label on a supermarket food item. Write-off the calories, wince at the sugar content, then stare blankly at the long list of emulsifiers and other chemical mysteries.

Well, there’s no sugar in bonds but it’s worth corroborating there aren’t any other nasty surprises in store.

Returning to our iShares Global Government Bond ETF candidate, you may be surprised to see that the currency exposure on a global government bond fund is 99.6% pound sterling. However that simply confirms we’re definitely looking at the hedged version.

The currencies listed show you what currency risk you’re taking in an unhedged fund.

The geographic breakdown verifies this fund invests purely in the developed world. I don’t attempt to second-guess whether, for example, 7.35% German bunds is just the right amount, however. Knowing that is about as useful to me as wine notes:

“Oh, this bond fund has wonderful notes of coarse sausage, accented with wild French garlic, and a heavily hocked public sector. One can almost hear the creaking of the balance sheet.”

Sector / issuer splits are worth a shufty, especially in aggregate market funds. The weight of corporate holdings is liable to reduce your fund’s recession-resistance versus high-quality government holdings.

You should get credit quality and maturity breakdowns, too, but we’ve discussed what to look out for earlier. 

Fund documents

Read the KIID and factsheet at least. The factsheet often contains useful, extra info.

Valuable nuggets can occasionally be plucked from the legalese spoil within the annual report.

Check the Reportable Income docs if your fund sits outside your ISA / SIPP tax redoubts.

Bond article survivors’ group

Peace be with you weary reader. It’s over! Please give me a shout-out in the comments if you made it this far.

It took me seven years to summon up the strength to write this beast. Hopefully it will help someone struggling with bond funds.

As for me, I’m off to have my head examined.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

  1. An ETF is a type of investment fund, so I’ll use the term ‘fund’ when referring to generic characteristics shared by index trackers. []
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