Investing in bonds and gilts: What you need to know

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Higher interest rates and cuts to the capital gains tax exemption could make investing in UK government bonds an attractive option for investors.

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Are bonds back in business? Stubbornly high interest rates and cuts to the capital gains tax (CGT) exemption are making UK government bonds – or UK gilts, as they’re commonly known – a more appealing investment option.

“The year 2022 was tough for the global bond market,” says Chris Woodward, investment counsellor for RBC Wealth Management in the British Isles. “The value of bonds eroded as both inflation and interest rates rose sharply. This triggered a sell-off, which drove their prices down and yields up.”

But with bond yields now higher than most other income investments in 2023, Woodward thinks there may be some buying opportunities for higher-rate UK taxpayers, for whom the CGT-exempt status of gilts can be particularly advantageous.

But before we look at the case for investment, it’s important to understand how bonds interact with financial markets.

Understanding bond yields

A “yield” refers to the annual return of the bond, and it’s expressed as a percentage. Bond yields are inversely related to bond prices; so when the price of a bond falls, the yield rises, and when the price rises, the yield falls. The chart below demonstrates this relationship.

The relationship between bond yields and bond prices

A chart showing the relationship between bond yield and bond prices.
Source: RBC Wealth Management

Bond prices are primarily impacted by changes in interest rates. In a rising interest rate environment, bond prices tend to decline, but if there are interest rate cuts, then bond prices typically increase.

This is because the bond’s coupon  (an interest rate applied to the principal value of the bond and paid to the bond holder at preset intervals) is generally fixed. Therefore, if current interest rates are higher than the fixed coupon, that bond becomes less attractive for investors, as they could instead purchase newly issued bonds that have higher coupons. Generally, the bond prices for fixed-coupon bonds will adjust to reflect this dynamic.

“Some of the gilts currently in the market were issued shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic, when interest rates were at historic lows,” says Rufaro Chiriseri, head of fixed income for RBC Wealth Management in the British Isles. “To reflect the expectation that interest rates and inflation would be low for some time, these gilts were issued with extremely low coupon rates, some as low as 0.125 percent per annum. They are now trading at a significant discount from their par value, due to the higher interest rate environment.”

In comparison, there are some recently issued gilts maturing over the next 10 years with 3.25 percent coupons, which is significantly higher than the bonds issued in 2020. The chart below demonstrates how 10-year gilt yields have surged over the course of 2023.

UK 10-year gilt yields approach one-year highs

A chart showing 10-year gilt yields approaching one-year highs
Source: Bloomberg, data as of 6 September 14:15 BST

Investing in gilts

Gilts (or bonds) play an important role in investing. “They can provide a predictable source of income, help preserve capital and add attractive diversification benefits to an investment portfolio, as they tend not to move in the same direction as other asset classes,” says Chiriseri.

Gilts are also completely free from CGT – only income tax on the coupon is paid – which means investors pay no CGT on any profits realised when the gilt matures. This is particularly useful for higher-rate taxpayers, who would otherwise pay CGT at 20 percent.

In 2023, the CGT exemption – the amount of capital gains you can make without being taxed – has been cut from £12,300 to £6,000. It is due to be slashed again in 2024–2025, to just £3,000; so finding ways to invest more efficiently when it comes to tax implications has become increasingly important.

“With gilts issued shortly after COVID-19 trading well below their face value, at around £70, the largest chunk of overall returns is likely to come from capital gains as opposed to income, as the bonds are ‘pulled to their par value’ at £100 at the maturity date,” says Woodward.

Bonds trading at a discount can clearly present a buying opportunity. But Chiriseri highlights an important point for investors: “When comparing different bonds, investors should consider the after-tax return for taxable and tax-exempt bonds. The tax equivalent yield or gross equivalent yield is the yield a taxable bond would need to earn to match the yield on a comparable tax-exempt bond. At these yield levels in gilts, investors would need to invest in taxable corporate bonds, which generally come with a higher risk, in order to achieve similar after-tax gilt returns.”

Bond investors should also be aware of the risks posed by fixed-income investing. “The year 2022 showed that bonds and investing for income are not necessarily correlated to safety,” says Woodward. “This strengthens the case for an active and dynamic approach to portfolio positioning. If you are investing in discounted bonds, you have to be able to withstand the daily volatility in prices and be ready to hold these gilts until their prices start to recover.”

What role do gilts play in a diversified portfolio?

When combined with other asset classes, such as equities and cash, gilts can be a key part of a diversified investment portfolio.

“It’s important to consider the maturity length when investing in gilts,” says Woodward. “Gilts with longer maturities are generally more sensitive to interest rate movements than gilts with shorter maturities, so investing across a range of gilts with varying durations can help to spread risk.”

But what about holding a fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF) as part of your fixed- income allocation?

“It’s important to note that funds and ETFs don’t deliver a guaranteed return stream,” adds Woodward. “A government bond ETF will not pull to par, and corporate bond funds can load up on poor-quality assets that trade like an equity if held at the wrong time.”

Investing in gilts is often considered a safe investment, but the role they play in your portfolio depends on your individual circumstances, including your financial position, how long you’re investing for, your risk appetite and the advice of your tax advisor.


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