Depending on your stage of life or the asset allocation in your portfolio, bonds may be a solid choice to provide fixed-income stability and a hedge against more risky equity investments. (See also: 6 Asset Allocation Strategies That Work.)
Interest rates have been historically low for many years, making the gold standard – U.S. Treasuries – less attractive. That's where investment-grade corporate bonds come in. Corporate bonds offer significantly higher yield in many cases, without an equally significant bump in risk. Yes, corporations do go bankrupt on rare occasions, but investment-grade bonds focus on companies with excellent credit ratings and very low risk of default. (See also: How to Invest in Corporate Bonds.)
The problem is that picking institutional bonds is a skill best left to experts, and their fees can easily gobble up gains. Fortunately, there are a number of high-quality investment-grade corporate bond exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that are comparatively inexpensive and highly liquid. You also avoid the market-timing mistakes that so commonly befall amateur investors. Most investors should view bonds and bond ETFs as a strategic asset – a buy-and-hold investment that serves a specific purpose in their overall asset allocation. (See also: Evaluating Bond Funds: Keep It Simple.)
If you're looking for a few good corporate bond options to round out your portfolio, here are a few ETFs that rise above their peers. All year-to-date (YTD) performance figures are based on the period of Jan. 1, 2018, through March 28, 2018. Funds were selected on the basis of a combination of assets under management (AUM) and overall performance. All figures are as of March 28, 2018.
- Issuer: BlackRock
- Assets Under Management: $36.85 billion
- YTD Performance: -1.23%
- Expense Ratio: 0.15%
This is the largest of the corporate bond ETFs and has returned 5.68% since its inception in 2002. The fund tracks the Markit iBoxx USD Liquid Investment Grade Index, investing roughly 90% of its assets into securities in the index, with the balance in cash funds. There are currently 1,860 holdings, heavily tilted toward the banking and consumer non-cyclical sectors. Top issuers include Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (BUD), GE Capital International Holdings Corporation and Goldman Sachs Group (GS).
LQD's low expense ratio and solid performance figures make it an attractive choice. One-year, three-year and five-year returns are 5.59%, 2.25% and 3.57%, respectively. (See also: Don't Doubt the Data: Bond ETFs Will Keep Growing.)
- Issuer: Vanguard
- Assets Under Management: $26.14 billion
- YTD Performance: -0.88%
- Expense Ratio: 0.07%
Short-term bonds generally mature within one to five years, and yields are lower than those of their longer-term cousins. This fund tracks the Barclays U.S. 1-5 Year Corporate Bond Index and invests about 80% of its assets into securities on the benchmark index. There are currently 2,125 holdings, almost entirely representing the financial and industrial sectors. There is a fairly even mix between bonds maturing in one to three years and those maturing in three to five years.
One of the advantages of short-term bonds is that they are less sensitive to rising interest rates – something to consider with the Federal Reserve on the move again. The fund's one-year, three-year and five-year returns are 0.60%, 1.47% and 1.61%, respectively. (See also: ETF Strategy: The Short-Term Corporate Bond.)
- Issuer: Vanguard
- Assets Under Management: $20.65 billion
- YTD Performance: -2.66%
- Expense Ratio: 0.07%
This fund uses an index-sampling strategy to match the performance of its benchmark index, the Barclays U.S. 5-10 Year Corporate Bond Index. There are 1,744 holdings in VCIT, the vast majority of which represent corporations rated either "A" or "Baa." Vanguard invests at least 80% of its assets in securities within the index.
One-year, three-year and five-year annualized returns of 1.18%, 2.20% and 2.81%, respectively, are robust given overall market conditions. Like other Vanguard funds, this one is quite inexpensive, charging just 7 basis points annually. (See also: VCIT: Vanguard Intermediate-Term Corporate Bond ETF.)