Being safe left some investors sorry in 2013.
That’s because some financial assets that are considered safe and steady lost money.
After three decades of steady gains, bonds had a bad year. Prices for Treasurys and other kinds of bonds slumped, as the U.S. economy improved, investors’ nerves steadied and the Federal Reserve prepared to pull back on its huge bond-buying program.
Gold was another investment that went from haven to headache. The price of gold gained steadily for more than a decade, driven by concerns about the health of the U.S. economy and rising inflation. The metal plunged in 2013, as the U.S. maintained its recovery and inflation was nowhere in sight.
Keeping money in a bank account was another safety-first strategy that worked when the stock market was plunging in 2008, but not since then. With the Standard and Poor’s 500 index soaring 29.6 percent in 2013 — or 31.9 percent, including dividends — returns from a savings account looked meager.
Here’s a look at how some of the supposedly safe assets have performed:
Treasurys and Other Kinds of Bonds
From 1981 through 2012, demand for Treasurys rose, and their yields, which move in the opposite direction, fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note bottomed at a record low of 1.39 percent in July of 2012, when the European debt crisis intensified and people rushed to buy U.S. government debt securities.
In the 1980s, investors bought Treasurys as inflation eased and interest rates fell. That made higher-yielding Treasurys already in the market more attractive. Investors also bought Treasurys during the financial crisis in 2007. Treasurys are considered among the safest financial assets, because they are backed by the U.S. government, which, at least in theory, should always be able to repay its debts.
Bonds also rose, as the Fed began purchasing Treasurys in response to the financial crisis and the recession, to keep interest rates low to boost the economy. The central bank has been purchasing $85 billion worth of Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities each month.
The U.S. economy now appears to be gaining steam and the Fed, the biggest buyer of Treasurys, plans to start reducing its purchases in January. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note climbed from 1.76 percent to as high as 3.04 percent in 2013, as investors sold bonds in anticipation of the Fed’s pullback.
The rise in yields, and the corresponding decline in bond prices, has meant losses for bond investors, prompting them to cut their holdings.
Investors pulled an estimated $32 billion out of Treasury securities in the first three quarters of 2013, putting Treasury funds on track for the first year of net outflows since 2003, according to Lipper fund flow data. The Lipper U.S. index for Treasurys, which measures the performance of government debt, has lost 9.1 percent since the start of 2013.
Other bonds, which are priced in relation to Treasury debt, also had a bad year. Municipal bonds, issued by states and cities, fell 2.6 percent, according to Barclays indexes. High-quality company bonds also edged lower.
“At some point, interest rates are going to have to go up,” says Bob Gavlak, a wealth advisor at Strategic Wealth Partners. “You need to understand that bonds aren’t necessarily a safe haven, as everybody has viewed them over the last 30 years.”
Gold had its worst slump in more than 30 years.
The price of gold rose every year from 2001 to 2012, as investors looked for an alternative to the U.S. dollar and protection against inflation. Gold went as high as $1,900 an ounce in August 2011, as lawmakers argued over raising the U.S. debt ceiling and threatened to push the nation into default.
In 2013, gold started to slump as inflation didn’t materialize, investors shrugged off the gridlock in Washington, and the U.S. economy recovered. In April, it plunged 9 percent in one day. Reports that the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus could sell some of its gold reserves to pay off its debts, after a bailout by the European Union, also rattled the market.
At its current price of $1,202 an ounce, gold has lost 28 percent of its value this year, the worst drop since 1981, when it slumped 33 percent.
Gold may still come back into favor with investors, says George Gero, a precious metals analyst at RBC Wealth Management. Rising tensions between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, or escalating conflicts in the Middle East, could unsettle financial markets in 2014 and ensure that gold stays in investment portfolios.
Gold “will retain its haven status next year,” says Gero. After all, “you do hold insurance on your car, hoping you’ll never have to use the insurance.”
Investors moved into cash, as the stock market collapsed in 2008. Unfortunately, many have stayed there, even as savings rates stagnate, while the Fed keeps its benchmark short-term borrowing rate close to zero.
That means that inflation is eroding the value of the money.
“That’s obviously a big problem,” says Chris Haverland, an asset allocation strategist for Wells Fargo Private Bank.
In the 12 months through November, consumer prices have risen 1.2 percent, more than the best rates currently offered on savings and money market accounts or CDs.
Even if long-term bond rates rise when the Fed starts easing back on its stimulus, the short-term rates off which most saving accounts are based are going to stay close to zero for at least another year, says Haverland.
Cash may still be the safest option for investors, but investors may also be missing out on better opportunities elsewhere.
Investors who stayed with stocks from October 2007, before the market crash, to September 2013, would have had a cumulative return, including dividends, of 21 percent. Haverland estimates that the return on cash over the same period was 3.6 percent.