Don't Confuse Rising TIPS Prices With Inflation

May.29.14 | About: iShares TIPS (TIP)

Summary

Many investors confuse the price action of TIPS with inflationary effects.

TIPS respond to changes in interest rates just like regular treasury bonds, but their coupon can adjust with changes in CPI.

Right now, we aren't seeing adverse inflationary effects, which is why TIP may not be the most suitable fixed-income investment.

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, are an interesting subset of treasury bonds designed to protect your purchasing power from the effects of rising consumer prices. However, many investors have fallen prey to the misconception that rising TIPS prices equates to an inflationary environment.

TIPS are issued by the U.S. Treasury with a fixed coupon and face amount that fluctuates in accordance with changes in the rate of inflation. The most common and widely accepted inflation indicator is the Consumer Price Index.

When the Consumer Price Index is rising, the treasury pays interest on the adjusted higher face value of the bond, which creates a gradually rising stream of interest payments. This increase in coupon payments allows you to protect your purchasing power by receiving additional income when the price of goods and services is increasing.

The largest ETF in this space is the iShares TIPS Bond ETF (NYSEARCA:TIP), which has nearly $13 billion invested in 39 treasury inflation-protected securities. Most TIPS are issued with long maturity dates, and therefore, the exchange-traded fund TIP has an effective duration of 7.6 years. This makes its price more sensitive to changes in interest rates than a shorter-maturity treasury fund.

In addition, because TIPS are not issued as often as typical treasury bonds, the income from TIP tends to be lumpy. This results in dividend income that rises and falls dramatically from month to month, and can produce misleading dividend yield statistics. Right now the trailing 12-month yield on TIP is listed at a meager 0.98%. This is calculated by summing the prior 12 months of distributions and dividing by the current share price.

The price of TIP responds to changes in intermediate-term interest rates similar to the iShares 7-10 Year Treasury Bond ETF (NYSEARCA:IEF), rather than inflationary pressures. The recent collapse in the CBOE 10-Year Treasury Yield has spurred investors to come pouring back into bonds, and prompted TIP to hit new 2014 highs. So far this year, TIP has gained 5.71% amid frenzied demand for fixed-income assets.

If the 2013 interest rate backup taught us anything, it's that TIP is not an effective tool at fighting rising Treasury bond yields in an environment of low inflation. Instead, it can be used as a directional bet on falling interest rates, or as a potential income accelerator when the Consumer Price Index is trending higher. With relatively tepid CPI statistics over the last decade, TIP has yet to show its true colors during a period of deteriorating purchasing power.


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Indexes

We would not likely see a dramatic increase in the yield of TIP without inflation breaking out above this long-term sideways trend. While there is some evidence that we are witnessing rising food and energy costs this year, the CPI has yet to reflect a confirmation that inflation is running above average.

ETF income investors should be wary that in a low-inflation environment, you give up substantial yield by investing in TIP above a comparable treasury or investment-grade bond fund. This is because the "inflation insurance" component acts as a drag on the distribution yield of the fund.

At the moment, I do not have any exposure to TIP for my income clients, because I don't believe the current environment is supportive of an inflationary hedge. I would rather be positioned in fixed-income sectors that are continuing to provide a higher yield, with an eye towards managing interest rate risk.

The PIMCO Income Fund D (MUTF:PONDX) and DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (MUTF:DBLTX) are two actively managed funds that have been core holdings of mine for some time. In addition, I have a tactical position in the iShares J.P. Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF (NYSEARCA:EMB) as a diversified value play outside the U.S.

Moving forward, I plan on expanding or collapsing my fixed-income sleeve in response to changes in interest rates or credit spreads, as a function of risk management. I also plan on keeping a close eye on inflationary statistics in the event that a fund like TIP warrants a closer look down the road.

Disclosure: I am long EMB. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: David Fabian, FMD Capital Management, and/or clients may hold positions in the ETFs and mutual funds mentioned above. The commentary does not constitute individualized investment advice. The opinions offered herein are not personalized recommendations to buy, sell, or hold securities.