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How to Wring More From Your Short-Term Assets

Christine Benz

The conventional wisdom around cash planning for retirement is that retirees should hold anywhere from two to five years' worth of living expenses in cash. But with cash yields as low as they can go, that's an awful lot of money to sock away in assets that aren't even outpacing inflation.  

That's partly why I've recently been suggesting that investors build a two-part short-term fund, whether they're retired and socking away living expenses or still working and building an emergency fund. Using such a strategy, you park Part 1 of the emergency fund in true cash. (Don't try to get too cute by reaching for extra yield; after all, this is money you can't afford to lose.) And then, if you have additional assets you'd like to safeguard, you can park them in a high-quality short-term bond fund. Granted, the yield pickup you see from such a fund may not be appreciably higher than what you're earning on your cash, but in such a yield-starved environment, every little bit counts.

With that concept in mind, I screened our database for bond funds that could function well for that second part of the emergency fund. I began by screening on the short-term bond, ultrashort-term bond, and muni-national short categories because venturing farther out on the maturity spectrum could subject the so-called safe component of investors' portfolios to undue volatility. I then screened on separate share classes of noninstitutional funds within those groups, and I also layered on a screen for no-load offerings. I'm generally agnostic about the load versus no-load question, in the view that if a commission-based broker gives an investor good advice and puts that investor in worthwhile investments, that's money well spent. But in the case of short-term bond funds, where yields are barely positive to begin with, I have a hard time getting excited about any investment that carries a sales charge.

To help home in on funds that have been less risky than their peers, I focused on funds whose bear-market rankings place them in the least-risky third of their peer groups. For bond funds, bear-market percentage ranks show how well a fund has held up in all the months during the past five years in which the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index has lost more than 1%. (As with our return rankings, a lower number is better.) And to help further winnow down the universe to funds that have a good shot at being less risky than their peers in the future, I searched for those with expense ratios of less than 0.6%, which places them in the short-term bond category's cheapest quartile. Not only does having low costs improve a fund's odds of future outperformance, but it also lessens the likelihood that a bond-fund manager will venture into overly risky investments to help make up for his built-in disadvantage versus his peers. Finally, because it's always better when a fund is run by a seasoned hand than by a newbie, I added a screen for management tenure of five years or longer.  Click here to run the screen yourself.

Several of Morningstar's favorite short-term bond funds made the cut, including the following:

 T. Rowe Price Short-Term Bond (PRWBX)
This  Fund Analyst Pick features everything one might look for in a sturdy short-term fund, including reasonable costs and a proven tendency to sidestep losses; senior analyst Miriam Sjoblom points out that under the 15-year watch of current manager Ted Wiese, the fund's losses in any rolling 12-month period have been minuscule. (In the fund's worst-rolling 12-month runs, it has lost less than 12 basis points.) Wiese and his crew also get kudos for working to protect this portfolio from the housing sector's calamity well in advance of other money managers. For investors in higher tax brackets, sibling  T. Rowe Price Tax-Free Short-Intermediate (PRFSX) beckons as a compelling pick.

 Vanguard Short-Term Bond Index (VBISX)
As a result of its ultra-low costs and Vanguard's indexing prowess, this short-term bond index fund has long been on Morningstar's short list of fixed-income favorites. True, its focus on government-backed bonds at the expense of corporates may be a hindrance in a strengthening economy, when the latter will tend to hold up better than the former. But in a flight to quality like the one we observed in 2007 and 2008, this fund has held up like a champ. It's also available in exchange-traded fund form as  Vanguard Short-Term Bond ETF  (BSV). Vanguard's short-term municipal fund,  Vanguard Short-Term Tax-Exempt  (VWSTX), also made it through my screen.

A version of this article appeared Sept. 8, 2010.

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Christine Benz does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar's editorial policies.