What is duration, and why should I pay attention to it? The Federal Reserve's actions over the next year could be important to bond markets, particularly if and when the Fed decides to increase its target interest rate. Since bond prices typically move in the opposite direction from yields, rising bond yields will translate into a decline in bond prices.
If you have bonds or bond funds in your portfolio, you might want to pay attention to the duration of each one. Technically, a bond or bond fund's duration calculates the length of time it will take to receive the full true value of the investment; duration takes into account the present value of expected future payments of interest and principal.
However, duration's biggest value to an investor is as a gauge of how sensitive a bond might be to changes in interest rates. The longer a bond's duration, the more its price is likely to be affected by an interest rate change. A fund's duration can be found in its prospectus; for an individual bond, you'll probably need to ask your broker or the bond's issuer.
To estimate the impact of an interest rate change on a specific bond holding, simply multiply its duration by the change in interest rates. For example, for a bond fund with a duration of 5 years, a 1% increase in interest rates would generally result in a 5% drop in the fund's value (1% x 5 years = 5%). Though the Fed's target rate is already at its historic low, the same principle would apply in reverse if interest rates were to fall. A 1% decline in interest rates would likely result in a 3% gain for a bond holding with a duration of 3 years.
Note: These hypothetical examples are intended as an illustration only and do not reflect the performance of any specific investment. They should not be considered financial advice. Before investing in a fund, consider its investment objective, risks, fees, and expenses, which can be found in the prospectus available from the fund. Read the prospectus carefully before investing.
Bear in mind that duration can work somewhat differently for specific types of bonds--for example, floating-rate bonds whose interest payments get reset. That's also true for mortgage-backed bonds, since interest rate changes can cause homeowners to refinance their loans.
Chris Bryant is an American financial advisor.