Since the early 1980s, interest rates have been on a secular decline. Since the credit crisis, governments across the world have worked to flood global financial markets with liquidity, which includes low interest rates, to try and stoke economic growth. This has served to push most interest rates to all-time lows, be it those paid on government securities, mortgage rates or the rates that banks borrow from and lend to each other. (For related reading, see Forces Behind Interest Rates.)

See: Bond Basics

With interest rates across the board so low, there is a pretty wide consensus that they will trend up in 2012 and beyond. Because bond prices move in the opposite direction of interest rates, investors holding bonds have a good chance of losing money on their holdings over the next few years. However, as with any asset class, there are pockets of the market where investors should be able to protect their principal and earn reasonable rates of returns in their bond portfolios. Below are four ways that bonds can fit into your investment profile during 2012.

Municipal Bonds
About a year ago, market strategist Meredith Whitney boldly predicted that municipal bonds in the United States would eventually see hundreds of billions of dollars in defaults, as local municipalities struggle with lower tax revenue due to the credit crisis and also find it difficult to operate after years of generous retirement benefit promises and related operating costs. Other strategists echoed her negative sentiment, which served to send many investors fleeing from municipal bond funds and individual bond positions.

Lower demand has served to push bond prices down and rates up. The rate on an AAA-rated five-year municipal bond is currently at roughly 0.79%, which is currently below the current Treasury bond yield of about 0.86% for the same maturity. Additionally, municipal bonds are generally exempt from federal taxes as well as most state and local tax rates. As a result, the tax equivalent yield is even higher, and moving into lower-rated bonds that are still investment grade could garner higher rates. A five-year A-rated municipal bond yields approximately 1.35%. (To learn more, read Avoid Tricky Tax Issues On Municipal Bonds.)

Corporate Bonds
AAA corporate bonds with a five-year maturity currently yields around 1.8%, which compared to the yield of municipal bonds with the same rating is more than double. A 20-year AAA corporate bond rate is somewhat decent at around 4.45%, though it requires locking up your money in a security that doesn't reach maturity until two decades later. As with the municipal bonds, sacrificing quality but still sticking in the investment grade category can allow for some pick up in yield. For instance, those brave enough to invest in bonds issued by banks and other financial institutions, can find yield to maturities of as much as 9%.

High-Yield Bonds
Sticking on the braver side of the bond market, high-yield bonds - which is a euphemism for junk bonds - offer plenty of opportunity to gamble for yields that can match the returns of stocks. A current perusal of some high-yield bonds, which are of a much lower credit rating than the investment grade bonds mentioned above, offer yield to maturities into the double digits. Clearly, the bonds with yields in the teens on up carry significant default risk, meaning investors can lose all of their money if the firm falls into further financial distress or ends up declaring bankruptcy. (Also, check out Junk Bonds: Everything You Need To Know.)

Convertible Bonds
Convertible bonds are an interesting subset of the bond market in that they combine features of traditional bonds with stocks. Like a bond, convertibles usually have a maturity date and pay a regular coupon, which should appeal to income-minded investors. They also tend to trade like a bond in a weak market environment or when company fundamentals are weak. But they also have the upside of a stock as they are convertible into the underlying company's stock. As such, they can trade much like a stock as it reflects the performance of the stock they are convertible into. Coupon rates vary and are generally quite low, but, again, offer more upside if the underlying stock performs well.

The Bottom Line
The bond market generally does not favor investors these days. The fact that companies, governments and municipalities are jumping at the chance to issue debt at low interest rates speaks to the fact that rates are at historic lows. Recently, a 10-year Treasury bond was issued with a coupon rate below 2%, which is the first time rates were ever this low. Despite the challenging overall outlook for the asset class, there are plenty of opportunities to find ways for bonds to fit into your portfolio. (For more information, read the Top 6 Uses For Bonds.)

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