Preferred Securities: Are They Attractive Now?

February 28, 2023 Collin Martin
Preferred securities appear attractive for those willing to take higher risk, but more risk-averse investors should consider investment-grade corporate bonds instead.

Preferred securities offer some of the highest yields in the fixed income markets today and we believe that they appear attractive for investors willing to take more risk to earn those yields. More risk-averse investors, however, might be better off considering higher-quality, lower-risk investments, as their yields are still at levels not seen in years.

The basics of preferred securities

Preferred securities are a type of hybrid investment that have characteristics of both stocks and bonds. Like bonds, they generally have fixed par values and have scheduled coupon payments. Like stocks, preferreds tend to rank very low in an issuer's capital structure—usually below traditional bonds but above a corporation's common stock. Importantly, they tend to have very long maturities, or no maturities at all (although they can usually be redeemed at the issuer's discretion after a certain amount of time has passed), which was a key driver of their poor performance last year.

Given their long maturities, preferreds are highly sensitive to changing interest rates and bond yields. With last year's surge in Treasury yields, preferred prices plunged through the first 10 months of the year. Total returns have since bounced back a bit given the decline in long-term Treasury yields since last October.

Although we don't expect the total returns to continue at such a high rate through the rest of the year, the outlook is more positive today given the starting point of higher yields.

After a disappointing 2022, preferreds have rebounded sharply this year

Chart shows the ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index cumulative total return going back to December 2021. Down 17% at its lowest point in 2022, the index is up more than 6% so far in 2023 and more than 10% since October 2022.

Source: Bloomberg. Total returns from 12/31/2021 through 2/24/2023.

ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index (P0P1 Index). Total returns assume reinvestment of interest and capital gains. Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested in directly. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Before investing, consider your risk tolerance

"Focus on quality" remains a key theme for fixed income investors this year. With that outlook, investors looking for higher yields but not willing to take outsized risks should consider investment-grade corporate bonds rather than preferred securities today. For investors who are willing to take additional risks to earn higher yields, we suggest preferred securities rather than high-yield corporate bonds.

The average yield-to-maturity of the ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index is roughly 6.9%. That might seem attractive on the surface, but it's not much of an advantage over the 5.8% yield of the Bloomberg U.S. Corporate "BBB" Bond Index. The average credit rating of that preferred security index in the mid-"BBB" area, so comparing yields to BBB rated corporate bonds provides a more apples-to-apples comparison.

That 1.1% yield advantage that preferreds offer relative to similarly rated corporate is relatively low considering it averaged roughly 2% from 2010 through 2019. Given that relatively small yield advantage, more conservative to moderate investors should instead consider investment-grade corporate bonds and the more than 5% average yields they offer, rather than reaching for yield with preferreds today.

The extra yield preferreds offer relative to similarly rated corporate bonds has declined

Chart shows average yield of ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index vs. the Bloomberg U.S. Corporate BBB Bond Index. Preferreds offered an average yield advantage of 2% over Baa rated bonds from 2010-2019, but that advantage is only 1% now.

Source: Bloomberg, using weekly data as of 2/24/2023.

Bloomberg U.S. Corporate BBB Bond Index (LCB1TRUU Index) and the ICE BofA Fixed rate Preferred Securities Index (P0P1 Index). Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur management fees, costs and expenses, and cannot be invested in directly. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

As we move down the risk spectrum, however, we prefer preferred securities over high-yield bonds. While high-yield bonds do offer a yield advantage over preferreds—the average yield of the Bloomberg U.S. High-Yield Bond Index is close to 9%—we see a greater risk of price declines with high-yield bonds as the year progresses.

The average spread (or risk premium) that high-yield bonds offer is relatively low today, despite a relatively risky economic outlook. As the yield curve remains inverted and financial conditions tighten, we expect the speculative-grade corporate bond default rate to continue rising from its recent lows. That should pull high-yield bond prices lower over time.

We see less room for preferred security prices to fall, however. The risk of dividend suspension for investment-grade rated preferreds issued by a large financial institution appears low, as most banks appear well-capitalized with strong balance sheets. The average price of the preferred index has rarely been lower, and while it is up sharply over the last few months, we believe a key driver of last year's decline was the rise in long-term yields. Long-term yields could drift higher from here, but upside appears limited. This could help keep preferred prices supported.

Preferred prices have rarely been lower

Chart shows the average price of the ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index going back to 2001. It is currently at $90.1, below highs above $104 that were reached multiple times during the time period.

Source: Bloomberg, using weekly data as of 2/24/2023.

Y axis is truncated at $80 for scale; the actual low was $38.60 on 3/6/2009. Note that average price of the preferred index is rebased to $100, despite many of its underlying holdings having par values of $25. As a result, the price fluctuations of $25 par value preferreds wouldn't likely be as large in dollar terms, but would be similar in percentage terms. Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested in directly. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Consider taxes when investing in preferred securities

Many preferred stocks pay qualified dividends that are subject to lower tax rates than traditional interest income. Investors considering preferreds relative to other investments should always consider what type of account they'll be held in—taxable or tax-advantaged—and if held in taxable accounts, the after-tax yield.

Not all preferred stocks or securities pay qualified dividends—some pay interest—so it's important to know what you own and what the tax consequences are. Qualified dividends are generally taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20% rates, depending on income limits. Those lower rates can be an advantage for investors in high tax brackets.

The chart below compares the yields of a number of fixed income investments with varying degrees of risk. The municipal bond index shown below holds investment-grade rated munis, but the average credit ratings tend to be higher than the holdings in the investment-grade corporate bond index. The yields on the left illustrate the average pre-tax yields of the investments, while the yields on the right reflect the after-tax yields for investors in the top tax bracket. Since the qualified dividend rates don't line up with the traditional tax brackets, we chose to only show the yields in the highest tax bracket for the sake of simplicity.

Fixed income investment yields on a pre-tax and post-tax basis

On a pre-tax basis, HY corporates are yielding 8.7%, preferreds 6.4%, investment-grade corporates 5.5%, and munis 3.6%. Assuming a 37% tax rate, the after- tax yields are: HY corporates 4.7%, preferreds 4.9%, IG corporates 3.0% and munis 3.6%.

Source: Bloomberg, as of 2/24/2023.

Indexes represented are the Bloomberg U.S. Corporate Bond Index (LUACTRUU Index), Bloomberg U.S. Corporate High-Yield Bond Index (LF98TRUU Index), ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index (P0P1 Index), and the Bloomberg Municipal Bond Index (LMBITR Index). The "37%" column makes the following assumptions: Investment-grade corporate and high-yield corporates include a 37% federal tax, a 5% state tax, and the 3.8% ACA tax; Preferred securities assume a 20% qualified dividend tax and the 3.8% Affordable Care Act (ACA) tax; Municipal bonds assume no taxes. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

There are different tax assumptions for each investment in the "37% Tax Rate" side of the chart:

  • High-yield and investment-grade corporates assume a 37% federal tax, 5% average state tax, and the 3.8% ACA tax.
  • Preferred securities assume a 20% qualified dividend tax and the 3.8% ACA tax.
  • Municipal bonds assume zero taxes.

For investors in the highest tax brackets, preferreds may offer higher after-tax yields than high-yield corporate bonds if all of the preferred dividends are qualified.

Preferred security performance and Fed rate-hike cycles

Chart shows that in rate-hike cycles beginning in 1995, 2000, 2006 and 2018, total returns were generally positive after the Federal Reserve stopped raising the federal funds rate.

Source: Bloomberg.

Total returns for the ICE BofA Fixed Rate Preferred Securities Index (P0P1 Index) 3 months prior and 12 months after the peak fed funds rate for each of the last four Fed rate-hike cycles, using monthly data. The peak rates used were the closest month-end date to the last rate hike of each cycle: 1/31/1995, 5/31/2000, 6/30/2006, and 12/31/2018, respectively. Total returns assume reinvestment of interest and capital gains. Indexes are unmanaged, do not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested in directly. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Over the last four cycles, total returns declined a bit leading into that last Fed rate hike, but then performance improved once the Fed hit its peak. Despite those declines, we don't suggest investors try to time the market and wait for better entry point since we don't know if that will present itself. What we do know is that low prices and high yields present an attractive opportunity for those who may have been waiting to earn more income. Past performance is no guarantee of future results of course, but total returns were positive in the 12 months following the peak of each of the last four rate hike cycles.

This supports the case for investors willing to take a bit more risk to consider preferreds today. What this chart doesn't show, however, is how preferreds perform once a recession hits. During the last two recessions, preferred prices fell sharply, although the 2020 plunge was recovered quickly.

What to do now

Investors willing to take some risk for higher yields should consider preferreds, but investors with more conservative to moderate risk tolerances might want to consider investment-grade corporate bonds that offer average yields near 5% with less risk than preferreds. For those considering preferreds, we always suggest that they be considered long-term holdings given their long maturities.

There are a number of ways to invest in preferred securities. Schwab clients can use the Preferred Shares Screener when looking for individual preferreds, or you can explore funds on the ETF or mutual fund pages; preferred funds can be found under the Morningstar category of "Preferred Stock." You can also consider a separately managed account.

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Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed-income investments are subject to various other risks including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications and other factors. Lower-rated securities are subject to greater credit risk, default risk, and liquidity risk.

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Preferred securities are often callable, meaning the issuing company may redeem the security at a certain price after a certain date. Such call features may affect yield. Preferred securities generally have lower credit ratings and a lower claim to assets than the issuer's individual bonds. Like bonds, prices of preferred securities tend to move inversely with interest rates, so they are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Investment value will fluctuate, and preferred securities, when sold before maturity, may be worth more or less than original cost. Preferred securities are subject to various other risks including changes in interest rates and credit quality, default risks, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, deferral risk, corporate events, tax ramifications, and other factors.

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