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Investing for Income—Not Just Growth

These ideas can help as you look to create a steady stream of income in today’s markets

DURING YOUR EARLY YEARS AS AN INVESTOR, you typically invest mainly for growth—you want your assets to increase in value. But as you get closer to retirement, you’ll most likely want your investments to generate income as well, either to provide part of your “retirement paycheck” or to supplement your earnings from part-time or consulting work.

“Investing for income is quite different from investing for growth, and it could require you to think a little differently about your assets, especially in today’s rate environment,” says Matthew Diczok, fixed income strategist, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust. While the Fed has gradually raised interest rates over the past couple of years, there’s currently uncertainty whether, or at what pace, those rate hikes will continue. And with lower rates generally making it more difficult to generate income from investments, that uncertainty constitutes a risk.

If your objective is to get an income stream from your investments, there are a number of approaches you can take—for many people, a combination of the strategies below may work best.

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Slideshow illustrating three tactics to consider when investing for income
Graphic showing an illustration of a ladder and explaining that a bond ladder can be a way to take advantage of rising rates
Graphic showing an illustration of a paper plane and explaining that streamlining investing via funds can offer cost efficiencies
Graphic showing an illustration of a camera and explaining that focusing on overall returns is key when investing for income

First, consider upping your exposure to bonds and dividend-paying stocks.

Here are several kinds of investments you might think about.

Dividend-paying stocks are shares of companies that make regular payments to stockholders. Both the dividends and share price are tied to the company’s current health and outlook, which means the value of these assets may rise or fall over time. Many investors choose dividend-paying stocks in the hopes that they’ll provide both income and asset growth. In a rising rate environment, which generally means the economy is doing well, the likelihood is greater that a dividend-paying stock can do both. One note of caution, though: some stocks with high-dividend yields can potentially drop in value when rates rise—if a company is highly leveraged, the cost of servicing their debt increases when rates go up, and that can have an impact on what their stock is worth.

“Investing for income is quite different from investing for growth, and it could require you to think a little differently about your assets.”—Matthew Diczok, fixed income strategist, Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust

Treasuries typically deliver a relatively low rate of return, but are considered among the safest of income-generating investments because they’re backed by the U.S. government, Diczok says. Depending on the type of Treasury instrument you buy, maturities range from 4 weeks to 30 years. Typically the longer the maturity, the more the bond pays. But also be aware that longer-maturity bonds, and especially Treasuries, are more sensitive to interest rate risk. When rates go up, the value of the bond goes down. That’s of less relevance if you plan to hold it to maturity, but you might want to ask yourself: Am I sure I won’t need the money before then?

Tax-free municipal bonds are offered by state and local municipalities, and the income they generate is usually exempt from federal taxes. “The tradeoff for this Federal-tax-free status is a relatively modest rate of return,” says Diczok.

Investment-grade corporate bonds are issued by private companies with high credit ratings. They are generally less volatile than the stock market and offer higher rates of interest than Treasuries or municipal bonds, according to Diczok, but because they’re backed by companies rather than the government, they’re considered somewhat riskier.

High-yield bonds deliver higher returns than investment-grade corporate bonds, but are considered riskier. Diczok warns that their price might fluctuate in a manner closer to that of stocks than of bonds with a less risky profile.

3 More Tactics That Can Help You Invest for Income

Build a bond ladder. It’s one of the most popular income-producing strategies in a rising-rate environment. You can create one by investing in a mix of bonds with short, medium and long durations. All bonds have what’s called a maturity date, which is the day that the full value will be paid back to you, the investor. “Most income investors want regular, reliable payments, which means owning a range of different maturities,” says Diczok. Doing so gives you predictable payments and the option to reinvest at new—presumably higher—interest rates as each bond matures. That way you can avoid locking in a low return over a long period of time. Plus, laddering helps to increase liquidity, says Diczok. The shorter-term bonds you purchase will offer access to cash as they mature, should you need it to supplement your income sooner rather than later.

Streamline your investing by using funds. “The most cost-efficient way to build an income portfolio for the average investor is through ETFs and mutual funds,” says Diczok. “These funds can give you access to a range of securities and cut down on transaction costs.”

Focus on your overall returns, rather than short-term market movement. When you’re deriving the income you need from an investment, it doesn’t matter as much whether the value of the underlying asset fluctuates, whether it’s a stock or a bond. “If you’re still receiving regular dividends, there’s less reason to panic if the market value of your investment goes down somewhat,” says Diczok.

Regardless of your approach, he adds, “make sure that your portfolio includes a range of income sources that are appropriate for your goals, timelines and risk tolerance.”

More for you

  • Learn how to incorporate bonds in your portfolio
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