Bonds have long played an essential role as a foundational holding at the core of investors’ portfolios. Bonds and bond ETFs have the potential to offer income and stable returns that can offset volatility
from a portfolio’s stocks.

But, in recent years, investors have struggled to achieve their investment goals amid low bond yields, especially from government bonds. The main cause? In response to the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Federal Reserve (and other central banks around the world) slashed interest rates to encourage economic growth.

While the Fed has since started to raise interest rates, they are still below historical averages. A low yield environment could be with us for some time because of several factors, including demographics (aging baby boomers have greater demand for bonds, potentially keeping interest rates low).

Beyond providing income potential it is important to emphasize that bonds and bond ETFs can play multiple roles in a portfolio.

These roles may include:

Recurring Income Stream
No matter if an investor is looking to grow wealth or save for retirement, generating income in a portfolio can help get an individual closer to reaching an investment goal. Investors can receive interest payments at a regular cadence, typically monthly, quarterly or annually, potentially providing stable income and strengthening total return in their portfolio.

Stability of Principal
In addition to receiving an income stream, bond investors receive the bond’s principal at maturity, assuming the bond is held to maturity and does not default. Repayment of the bond’s principal (a fixed amount) at a fixed time helps provide an investor with stability in their portfolio.

Potential hedge against risk
Bonds and bond ETFs can offer a potential hedge against increased equity market volatility. Historically, bonds have been more likely to move in the opposite direction to stocks. For example, fixed income investors have increased their allocations to U.S. Treasuries during equity market sell-offs as a potential safe haven investment.1

Correlation of Bond and Equity Returns

Chart: Fixed income ETFs correlations

Source: Thomson Reuters Datastream, chart by BlackRock as of 6/30/2017. Chart shows the correlation of daily returns of U.S. 10yr Treasury returns and S&P 500 over a rolling 90 day period. Correlation measures how two securities move in relation to each other. Correlation ranges between +1 and -1. A correlation of +1 indicates returns moved in tandem, -1 indicates returns moved in opposite directions, and 0 indicates no correlation.

Despite challenges that bond and bond ETF investors may face with yield and income in the short term, it is important to remember that fixed income investments can play a vital role as a foundational, long term holding, at the core of a portfolio.

While there are similarities between bonds and bond ETFs, there are also differences between the two investments. Investors should be diligent when researching the best investment vehicles for their portfolios. For example, individual bonds have set maturity dates while traditional bond ETFs do not. Bonds and bond ETFs may have different distribution schedules, despite tracking the same asset class, this may result in different income streams for investors. Individual bonds trade over-the-counter while bond ETFs trade on an exchange. Additionally, bonds and bond ETFs may create different tax liabilities and therefore investors may be subject to a variety of federal, local and/or capital gains taxes. Cost of ownership is another area where individual bonds and bond ETFs differ, bond investors may face a transaction and brokerage cost at the time of purchase whereas a bond ETF investor will likely pay both an expense ratio and transaction cost.