TAKING STOCK: Bond leverage

Dear Mr. Berko:

I know from previous columns that you don't approve of investments in those high yielding mortgage stocks like American Capital Agency, CYS Investments, Hatteras Capital and others paying 15 percent to shareholders. My broker suggested that some friends and I buy a portfolio of high yield 10 percent or better junk bonds and use his firm's margin account that will charge us 3 percent on the money we borrow. He showed my friends and me how to make 25 percent to 40 percent doing it this way. He believes this is safer than buying CYS or Hatteras because the return is higher and gives us a bigger cushion if interest rates rise. But he doesn't think interest rates will rise for at least three years according to what the FED is saying. We all are retired (with modest means) and I've been asked to write you for your opinion. Our broker talks a little above our heads, so could you explain to us just how this would work? Also, please tell us what you think and please recommend other high yielding corporate bonds yielding 10 percent to 12 percent that we can buy in addition to those our broker likes.

TG in Destin, Fla.

Dear TG:

This low interest rate environment has encouraged rampant speculation among lots retired folks who, because they have no earned income, are going be hurt badly when the market moves against them, and it will when they least expect it to. This broker is a first class sleaze ball, his slinky is kinked and he's proof that evolution can go in reverse. And "no," I will not recommend high yield junk bonds for you guys because I won't be a participant in your lemming-like potential financial suicide. But I will explain the process because it might help you understand how bloody risky it is.

Corporate bonds are marginable, and this Sockit-Tume brokerage will allow you to borrow 70 percent of a bond's purchase price. For illustrative purposes, assume you purchase $10,000 face value of the Triple X rated, 8 percent New York Central Snail Road bonds for $8,000 with a current yield of 10 percent. Sockit-Tume brokerage will lend you 70 percent of the purchase price or $5,600 (in a margin account) and you have to ante up 30 percent of the purchase price or $2,400, which is your equity investment. Get it? Now you owe the Sockit-Tume margin account $5,600 (called a debit balance) on which Sockit-Tume will charge you 3 percent interest or $168 for the year.

However, the New York Central Snail Road bond will pay you 8 percent interest or $800 in annual interest, which is a lot more than the $168 of interest you must pay Sockit-Tume on your debit balance. With me so far? The New York Central Snail Road bond pays you $800 in interest but you pay Sockit-Tume $168 interest. And the net difference between $800 and $168 is $632, which you can put in your purse. Got it? Since you invested $2,400 to buy the bond, and since you net $632 in interest on this transaction, your percent return is ($632 divided by $2,400) a sweet 37.9 percent. And that's good, yes? Well...maybe, but for a short time only.

Here's the rub. I don't trust any brokerage to keep your interest rate at 3 percent. And because this is an election year and because the party in power will do everything within its power to remain in power, I don't trust the FEDs numbers on employment, inflation, industrial capacity, inventories, consumer confidence, housing, etc. And I don't trust the FED to keep interest rates low after the election. Again, for illustrative purposes, if the FED raises rates rise by 1 percent, the market value of your bond will fall from $8000 to $7300, causing you to lose $700 in principal, reducing you equity from $2,400 to $1,700 and erasing all your interest profit plus some. Then, adding insult to stupidity, Sockit-Tume will demand that you add that $700 loss (in cash) back to your account plus another $500 or so, depending on its margin requirement.

Only the big shots at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, UBS, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, who are kissing buddies with the FED, know when interest rates will rise. I doubt they care to share this privileged information with folks like us.

In effect, this investment is like picking a random stick of dynamite from a big pile where many have very short fuses. And If you pick the wrong stick, I doubt you'll toss it soon enough. This broker is radioactive.


Please address your financial questions to Malcolm Berko, P.O. Box 8303, Largo, FL 33775 or e-mail him at mjberko@yahoo.com. Visit Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Published: Fri, May 11, 2012