Skip to main content

Do yourself a favor.

Free up a few hours to do some math. Check the real yield of all your investments over the last five years: mutuals, provident funds, stock portfolios, insurance policies, your apartment (if you've sold it), whatever you have.

What did you get? Probably something you'd have preferred not to realize.

Now do the same, going back seven years. Most of you are still in for a sour disappointment: your real gains are probably less than you'd expected.

And now that you've realized the discrepancy between your expectations and reality, it's time to crack open the page of bond rates. Or at least call up a broker who offers vehicles linked to the consumer price index.

When all is well, bonds or savings are the last things that come to mind when looking for attractive investments. Everybody knows that long-term investments are the perfect vehicle for morons who don't know a bond from a shoelace.

Right? Not really. That tenet needs serious rethinking.

The most glaring sign of the economic crisis and the government's impotence is the drop in bond prices over the last year, which lifted prevailing short-term and long-term interest rates sky-high.

High rates yields demonstrate that investors are growing increasingly afraid of the government deficit, of the forex market, and of the risk of an inflation outbreak. Indeed, the papers have written extensively about the jump in interest rates and in the damage it is causing to mortgage holders, to companies, and to anybody running an overdraft at the bank.

TheStreet Recommends

But there is a bright side. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, from the middle class too, are in credit at the banks. They have more financial assets than commitments. For them, the high interest rates are a boon.

Because of the drop in bond rates, bonds or savings are now offering interest of 5.5% to 6% a year. That is the highest rate in the last 15 years, other than two short episodes in early 2000 and in the summer of 1996. Even if you factor in tax on gains starting in 2003, the yields remain very high.

And even more importantly, if you check the returns on most savings instruments over the last decade, from training funds to managed portfolios, to life insurance to share-based mutuals, you'll find that most involved from higher risk and volatility, yet generated lower average annual yields.

If the managers of the provident funds, insurance companies, mutuals, and investment portfolios had learned the lessons of history and managed the money with the long view in mind, the best thing they could do is replace the whole thing with long-term government bonds linked to the CPI. That would have assured their clients of utterly risk-free long-term returns of 5% to 6% a year in real terms, which is very high in historic terms. (Naturally, there is one risk which is that the Israeli government will go broke. But in that case, just about every investment will be a bad one, so we shall ignore that possibility.)

Naturally, investment managers are not about to abandon everything and hare for T-bills, and they have a few good reasons. Here are three of them:

1. Big players such as provident funds and insurance companies cannot replace their entire portfolio. They are too big for the market and cannot take advantage of such opportunities.

2. Most institutional investors do not think in terms if long-term returns for customers. They think about returns in the next month or quarter, because that is how their performance is measured. Buying long-term bonds exposes them to fluctuations arising from their leverage.

3. Many of the customers of these institutions do not understand the vast advantage of long-term investments bearing 5% to 6% a year. They think they can do much better than that.

And, of course, there's the best reason of all: An investment manager who does nothing more than buy long-term government bonds renders himself and his management fees utterly superfluous.

But anybody who's cracked the history books and wants long-term instruments will find that even though 6% a year sounds deadly dull, it's actually an opportunity to lock up some money at the highest-rate lowest-risk going today.