Safely Earn More Interest on Your Money

I am always a bit curious when I read a cover story headline like the one on Kiplinger Magazine this month. It says 18 Ways To Earn 5% or More On Your Money.

interest-rates-worry A lot of readers will make an assumption that goes along with that headline that they are talking about low-risk investments or no-risk savings products. After all, it doesn’t take a degree in advanced personal finance to know that there are literally thousands of ways to earn 5% or more on your money. Of course, most of those also come with a way to lose 5% or more on your money too.

That is not what the article is about. Instead, this particular article, whose article title inside the magazine is, “Great Rates In A Low-Yield World” manages to give a better clue. The article is NOT about where to open a savings account to earn 5% or more. It is about how to get 5% YIELD on your investment. That is, 5+ percent as income, and not counting losses on invested capital.

Real Earnings Are About More Than Dividends and Interest

Unfortunately, while the article does indeed uncover available investments earning a 5% or higher yield, it ignores the potential change in value of those investments. If you are holding bonds to maturity, of course, this factor is moot, but if your personal finance needs change or you don’t plan on holding those munis for a couple of decades, then price volatility is a very real factor in whether or not you earn that five percent target interest rate.

The first way to earn more than 5% on your money on the list is taxable municipal bonds. Specifically, they talk about Build America Bonds (BAB) which in addition to having taxable interest, have a portion of their bond insurance paid for by the Federal Government. Long-term BAB are paying 6 percent or higher in many cases.

Of course, you better be planning to hold on to those long-term bonds for a long-term investment.

As any educated investor knows, bond prices fall when interest rates rise. This is true for Build America Bonds muni bonds too. So, the $1,000 you shell out to get the 6.6% 25-year Illinois bonds the article references will soon be worth much less.

While economists are predicting the Fed won’t raise interest rates until 2012, that still means that for the next 23 years, those bonds will be trading at a discount. That is not a pretty outlook for bonds.

If rates rise far enough and you end up selling those bonds for whatever reason, your capital losses will make your actual rate of return on the bonds far less than the 5% you were trying to earn more than in the first place.

Other money earning strategies on the list potentially have the same issue. The list includes some REITS, preferred stocks, and some exchange traded limited partnerships.

Nothing drives home this point more than the inclusion of British Petroleum on the list of ways to earn more than 5% on that money. Since magazines go to print months before they hit the newsstand, the article was written before the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico occurred. So, on page 39, under “Juicy Dividend Payers” is British oil giant BP (with a listed stock price of $59) and its 5.7% dividend.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that this is one suggestion you do not want to take. Suggestions that BP eliminate or sharply reduce its dividend payment in order to retain enough cash to pay out mounting compensation and penalties are growing louder. Furthermore, the stock’s price has been crushed, closing under $34 per share on Friday. If you bought BP at $59 hoping for a nice juicy dividend, not only is that dividend likely to be much lower (if not zero), but you have also lost 40% of your original investment!

The point is not that this one suggestion turned out very bad, but rather that any one of the suggestions in that same article could have something happen to them as well. It wouldn’t take the world’s largest oil spill to turn a 6% dividend into a 3% yield, while at the same time wiping out 5% of your original investment.

Looking for ways to earn more interest on your savings is good. Knowing the distinction between savings and investments is even better. Don’t run down to your broker’s office with your savings account because a financial magazine or money management website touts higher returns. First investigate the risks and make sure you are putting the right dollars in the right financial asset strategy buckets.

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