Investing for the Cheap Money Era

01/31/2012 10:00 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

The Federal Reserve last week promised to keep interest rates near zero for three more years. You know that hurts savers. But how is it likely to affect your portfolio?

Last Wednesday, the US Federal Reserve said it would keep interest rates at their current, exceptionally low level until the end of 2014. Forget about the middle of 2013, which seemed extremely far away when the Fed made that "guarantee" in August.

It’s 2014. And forget about the beginning or middle of that year. Now the Fed is talking about the end of 2014.

Almost three years from now. Three years with short-term interest rates near 0%.

Let’s cut to the chase for investors: Who wins and who loses from this extraordinary statement of policy by the US central bank?

Winner: Owners of Medium-Term Treasuries
The Fed’s statement, in essence, extended the current 0% short-term rate from now—the beginning of 2012—to the end of 2014, or three years.

As you’d expect, the yields on the two-year Treasury note had already collapsed with the Fed’s "guarantee" of 0% interest rates until mid-2013, moving from 0.61% in the beginning of January 2011 to just 0.25% in December 2013. (Lock up your money for two years and earn 0.25%? Amazing.)

The five-year Treasury note had dropped even further in 2011, from 2.02% at the beginning of the year to 0.89% at the beginning for 2012.

But the Fed’s announcement has already moved it lower—to a yield of just 0.75% on January 27. The five-year yield could certainly move lower, but the real action now is probably in the seven-year Treasury, which started 2011 at a yield of 2.74% and began 2012 at 1.41%. The note has dropped since the Fed’s announcement, from 1.4% to 1.31% on January 27.

If you remember that Treasury prices move up as yields move down, you can see how profitable the collapse in Treasury yields was for Treasury holders in 2011, and how 2012 could be just as profitable for holders of seven-year Treasury notes.

Loser: Bank Stocks
Banks make their money on lending from the spread between their cost of capital and the interest they can charge on their loans.

Much of that spread is because banks raise their money at the short end of the yield by borrowing for 30 or 90 days and then lending out at the long end for seven or ten or more years. The steeper the yield curve—the greater the difference between the yield for 90 days and the yield for ten years—the more profitable lending is for a bank.

So 2011 wasn’t a great year for what is called the net-interest-rate margin at banks. Short-term costs of borrowing funds to lend have been really, really cheap, thanks to the Federal Reserve, with the yield on three-month Treasury bills beginning 2011 at 0.15%. That was a huge 3.21 percentage points below the yield on the ten-year Treasury bond, the benchmark for interest rates on mortgage loans.

Since then, while borrowing costs have remained stable, the yield on the ten-year bond has tumbled to 1.89%. That has cut the spread to 1.74 percentage points from that earlier 3.21 percentage points.

Not all banks feel the effects of this decreasing spread equally. Banks with large investment portfolios with lots of assets maturing, so that they have to replace high-yielding with lower-yielding assets, will take a bigger hit. (That is a problem at Bank of America (BAC), it seems, from the bank’s fourth-quarter earnings report.)

Banks with big mortgage portfolios with maturities out beyond ten years will take less of a hit. Banks that raise much of their funds from deposits might have a bit more flexibility in lowering their costs of capital.

But all in all, I think it’s correct to say that a flatter yield curve, which is what the Federal Reserve has produced with its policies in 2011 and 2012, isn’t good for bank margins.

If I were looking for banks that could thrive in this atmosphere, I’d look for banks such as US Bancorp (USB), a member of my Jubak’s Picks portfolio, that get a relatively higher percentage (compared with their peers) of revenue from fees rather than from lending or investment banking.

This environment will also be tough for insurance companies, which will see their investments yield even less in 2012.

NEXT: Winner: Dividend Stocks

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Winner: Dividend Stocks
The Federal Reserve’s low interest-rate policy has been called a war on savers. That seems pretty accurate to me.

Currently you can earn a whopping 0.248% (national average) on a three-month certificate of deposit (with a $10,000 minimum). Want to make a decent return—say, something as magnificent as 1%? Forget a 12-month CD. The yield is just 0.556%. Willing to go out two years? The national average for a two-year CD is just 0.875%.

To add insult to injury, the headline inflation rate for 2011 was 3%; the core rate (which excludes increases in the prices of food and fuel) was up 2% for the year. No matter which inflation rate you use, all of those CDs lost value in 2011.

No wonder, then, that dividend stocks paying more than 3% (so an investor at least stays even with inflation) are among the hottest stocks on the market. In a year when the S&P 500 managed a return of just over 2%, a not-especially-stellar drug company like Merck (MRK) returned 8.9%—because it paid a dividend of better than 4%.

Verizon (VZ), in not a particularly good year for phone companies, managed a 17.6% total return—because it paid more than 5%. Pipeline master limited partnerships such as Oneok Partners (OKS), with a dividend yield of 6%, returned 51% for the year. Another master limited partnership, Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP), returned 27%.

I don’t see any reason that dividend stocks with yields above 3% won’t turn in another stellar performance in 2012. After all, the Federal Reserve just guaranteed that savers won’t be able to make 2% even if they buy seven-year Treasury notes.

And, looking at the number of financial advisors and gurus that I see praising dividend stocks, I think 2012 could be even better for anything with a pulse and a yield.

Merck, Oneok, and Magellan Midstream are all members of my Jubak Dividend Income Portfolio. I’ll post a performance report and new picks for that portfolio on Friday.

Winner: Commodity Stocks and Precious Metals
It’s hard to see how monetary policy at the Federal Reserve and the world’s other central banks won’t eventually push inflation higher. (For more on the global picture, see my January 23 column, "Is it Time to Fight the Fed?"

The question really isn’t if, but when. Some investors aren’t interested or willing to look that far ahead.

The inflation-expectations model produced by the Cleveland Fed shows that the consensus expectation from all the indicators that it watches is for inflation to average less than 2% a year for the next ten years.
I’m willing to bet that won’t be true, and so are some other investors.

To back up their bet, they’re buying gold—gold was up almost 5% in the week that ended January 27—and commodities and commodity stocks.

My favorite gold mining stocks are Goldcorp (GG) and Yamana Gold (AUY). Both are members of my long-term Jubak Picks 50 portfolio). Shares of Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold (FCX), my favorite proxy for copper, climbed by 7.03% in the week that ended on January 27. (Freeport McMoRan is a member of my Jubak’s Picks portfolio.)

But for US investors, the Fed’s decision last week to extend "exceptionally" low rates to the end of 2014 provides another argument for gold and commodities.

In general, low interest rates lead to a lower US dollar versus currencies from countries with higher interest rates (and faster economic growth and lower budget deficits).

The US dollar may not sink like a stone—and given the crisis in the euro and Japan’s huge budget deficit, it may not even fall against the yen and euro. But the pressures on the dollar during the Fed’s exceptionally long period of exceptionally low rates is definitely downward.

And a lower dollar means higher prices for commodities. I’d wait for the next dip on commodities on a global run to safety after the next blow up in the euro, but I’d certainly be looking to add to positions in commodities and commodity stocks whenever the price is right.

I’d start first with copper and stocks such as Freeport McMoRan; Southern Copper (SCCO), up only 0.78% in the past week, but up 19.3% for 2012; and Buenaventura Mining (BVN), up 13.5% in the past week and 12.6% for 2012 as of January 27.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. The mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did own shares of Polypore International as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of September see the fund’s portfolio here.

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