What Is a Barbell?

The barbell is an investment strategy applicable primarily to a fixed-income portfolio. Following a barbell method, half the portfolio contains long-term bonds, and the other half holds short-term bonds. The “barbell” gets its name because the investment strategy looks like a barbell with bonds heavily weighted at both ends of the maturity timeline. The graph will show a large number of short-term holdings and long-term maturities, but little or nothing in intermediate holdings.

Key Takeaways

  • The barbell is a fixed-income portfolio strategy where half of the holdings are short-term instruments, and the other half have long-term holdings.
  • The barbell strategy allows investors to take advantage of current rates by investing in short-term bonds and get higher yields of holding long-term bonds.
  • The barbell strategy can also mix stocks and bonds.
  • There are several risks associated with using a barbell strategy.

Understanding Barbells

The barbell strategy will have a portfolio consisting of short-term bonds and long-term bonds, with no intermediate bonds. Short-term bonds are considered bonds with maturities of five years or less while long-term bonds have maturities of 10 years or more. Long-term bonds usually pay higher yields—interest rates—to compensate the investor for the risk of the long holding period.

However, all fixed-rate bonds carry interest rate risk, which occurs when market interest rates are rising in comparison to the fixed-rate security being held. As a result, a bondholder might earn a lower yield compared to the market in a rising-rate environment. Long-term bonds carry higher interest rate risk than short-term bonds. Since short-term maturity investments allow the investor to reinvest more frequently, comparably rated securities carry the lower yield with the shorter holding requirements.

Asset Allocation With the Barbell Strategy

The traditional notion of the barbell strategy calls for investors to hold very safe fixed-income investments. However, the allocation can be mixed between risky and low-risk assets. Also, the weightings—the overall impact of one asset on the entire portfolio—for the bonds on both sides of the barbell don't have to be fixed at 50%. Adjustments to the ratio on each end can shift as market conditions require.

The barbell strategy can be structured using stock portfolios with half the portfolio anchored in bonds and the other half in stocks. The strategy could also be structured to include less risky stocks such as large, stable companies while the other half of the barbell might be in riskier stocks such as emerging market equities.

Getting the Best of Both Bond Worlds

The barbell strategy attempts to get the best of both worlds by allowing investors to invest in short-term bonds taking advantage of current rates while also holding long-term bonds that pay high yields. If interest rates rise, the bond investor will have less interest rate risk since the short-term bonds will be rolled over or reinvested into new short-term bonds at the higher rates.

For example, suppose an investor holds a 2-year bond that pays a 1% yield. Market interest rates rise so that current 2-year bonds now yield 3%. The investor allows the existing 2-year bond to mature and uses those proceeds to buy a new issue, 2-year bond paying that returns the 3% yield. Any long-term bonds held in the investor's portfolio remain untouched until maturity.

As a result, a barbell investment strategy is an active form of portfolio management, as it requires frequent monitoring. Short-term bonds must be continuously rolled over into other short-term instruments as they mature.

The barbell strategy also offers diversification and reduces risk while retaining the potential to obtain higher returns. If rates rise, the investor will have the opportunity to reinvest the proceeds of the shorter-term bonds at the higher rates.

The short-term securities also provide liquidity for the investor and flexibility to deal with emergencies since they mature frequently.

Pros

  • Reduces interest rate risk since short-term bonds can be reinvested in a rising-rate environment

  • Includes long-term bonds, which usually deliver higher yields than shorter-term bonds

  • Offers diversification between short-term and long-term maturities

  • Can be customized to hold a mix of equities and bonds

Cons

  • Interest rate risk can occur if the long-term bonds pay lower yields than the market

  • Long-term bonds held to maturity tie up funds and limit cash flow

  • Inflation risk exists if prices are rising at a faster pace than the portfolio's yield

  • Mixing equities and bonds can increase market risk and volatility

Risks From the Barbell Strategy

The barbell strategy still has some interest rate risk even though the investor is holding long-term bonds with higher yields than the shorter maturities. If those long-term bonds were purchased when yields were low, and rates rise afterward, the investor is stuck with 10-30-year bonds at yields much lower than the market. The investor must hope that the bond yields will be comparable to the market over the long term. Alternatively, they may realize the loss, sell the lower-yielding bond and buy a replacement paying the higher yield.

Also, since the barbell strategy does not invest in medium-term bonds with intermediate maturities of 5-10 years, investors might miss out if rates are higher for those maturities. For example, investors would be holding 2-year and 10-year bonds while the 5-year or 7-year bonds might be paying higher yields.

All bonds have inflationary risks. Inflation is an economic concept that measures the rate a basket of standard goods and services increases over a specific period. While it is possible to find variable-rate bonds, for the most part, they are fixed-rate securities. Fixed-rate bonds might not keep up with inflation. Imagine that inflation rise by 3%, but the bondholder has bonds paying 2%, in real terms, they have a net loss of 1%.

Finally, investors also face reinvestment risk which happens when market interest rates are below what they were earning on their debt holdings. In this instance, let's say the investor was receiving 3% interest on a note that matured and returned the principal. Market rates have fallen to 2%. Now, the investor will not be able to find replacement securities that pay the higher 3% return without going after riskier, lower credit-worthy bonds.

Real-World Example of Barbell Strategy

As an example, let's say an asset allocation barbell consists of 50% safe, conservative investments such as Treasury bonds on one end, and 50% stocks on the other end.

Assume that market sentiment has become increasingly positive in the short term and it is likely the market is at the beginning of a broad rally. The investments at the aggressive—equity—end of the barbell perform well. As the rally proceeds and the market risk rises, the investor can realize their gains and trim exposure to the high-risk side of the barbell. Perhaps they sell a 10% portion of the equity holdings and allocate the proceeds to the low-risk fixed-income securities. The adjusted allocation is now 40% stocks to 60% bonds.