One of the biggest challenges for bond investors today is keeping income flowing without taking too much risk. We think a balanced barbell approach can help.

In a recent post, we explained why now may be the time for bond investors to consider pairing their interest rate–sensitive bonds and credit assets in a single portfolio. We noted that this approach, known as a credit barbell, can minimize large drawdowns while still providing a strong and steady stream of income.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what makes this strategy tick.


Let’s start with what bonds do best: generate income.

Bond returns come from two places: capital appreciation (measured by the changes in bond prices) and coupon income (semiannual fixed interest payments to bondholders). Over the long run, though, it’s the income that dominates.

That’s not a big surprise when it comes to credit assets such as high-yield bonds or bank loans. It’s these assets’ high yields and income potential that make investors willing to shoulder the risk of a ratings downgrade or default.

But between 1997 and 2016, income also accounted for nearly all the average quarterly return of US Treasuries—a purely interest rate–related asset—even though rates fell sharply and prices rose over that period.

This illustrates why rate-sensitive assets should always have a seat at the asset-allocation table. It also helps to explain why a skilled active manager who pairs them with return-seeking assets such as high yield and adjusts the balance as needed has the potential to produce relatively high returns.


But what about the other benefit of the barbell: lower risk? This has to do with the way each type of bond behaves. Government bonds and other risk-reducing assets and return-seeking assets such as high-yield corporates usually take turns outperforming the other.

For example, faster growth tends to feed inflation and push up interest rates, which erodes the purchasing power—and market value—of government bonds. But it can boost consumer spending and corporate profits—good news for high-yield bonds because it lowers the odds of default.

Because these assets tend to take turns outperforming each other, investors can sell the outperformers on one side and buy the underperforming bonds on the other. That limits drawdown risk. In other words, a portfolio that combines high-quality and high-income bonds in a balanced way has the potential to weather most markets.