Investing for income when rates are low

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Investing for income when rates are low

July 2018

Rock bottom interest rates have made investing for income unusually challenging for SMSF investors.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of income-producing investments to choose from – and they’re easier to access than ever before.

With Australia’s official cash rate at a record low of 1.5%, down from its pre-GFC peak of 7.25%, finding secure income-generating investments for your SMSF can be challenging.

But there is good news. By looking beyond the cash and share investments that form the core of many SMSF portfolios, investors can still find assets generating a regular income without excessive risk. Some could even help you beat inflation with the potential for capital growth.

Here are four income-producing investments to consider:

1. Fixed interest

Fixed interest investments include government and corporate bonds; capital and subordinated notes; and debentures. When you invest in fixed interest, you’re effectively making a loan to the issuer, whether a government or a company. In exchange, you’ll receive regular interest payments, then get your capital back when the investment matures. While their terms vary, most offer a predictable income over a set time frame, usually at a fixed rate.


As an asset class, fixed interest investments generally combine a reliable income with a lower level of risk. Because your income is usually set in advance, you’re protected against falling rates, although you won’t benefit from any rate rises. If the company that issued the security fails, bond and note holders receive their money back before shareholders, so your risk is lower than with shares.

And fixed interest investments may help reduce risk significantly when added to a share portfolio. That’s because they can continue to produce a reliable income when shares are underperforming, helping give you more predictable returns overall.

Issues to consider

Fixed interest investments typically offer minimal capital growth potential, which could leave you vulnerable to inflation, especially if you or other fund members are retired. However, some fixed interest investments, such as Australian Government Treasury Indexed Bonds (TIBs) come with built-in inflation protection.

The most secure fixed interest investments might also offer relatively low yields. While others offer returns well above the cash rate, that might be because they are issued by companies with a higher risk of default.

How to access them

In the past, it has often been difficult for individual investors to access fixed interest investments directly. But that all changed in late 2012, when the Australian Government officially moved to make Treasury Bonds available on the ASX. You can also get exposure to corporate bonds on the ASX through XTBs, which are exchange-traded trusts that invest in a single bond.

2. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

Most SMSF investors are already familiar with ETFs – managed funds traded directly on the ASX, just like shares. What you may not know is that ETFs can be used for much more than simply tracking a sharemarket index.

Over the past few years, the number of ETFs has multiplied, with a huge range of options now available, including ETFs specifically designed to generate income. They include funds that track fixed interest indexes, offer exposure to high-yield shares with regular franked dividends, or even invest in high-interest deposits.


Because they’re traded on the ASX, ETFs typically offer speed, transparency and liquidity. They can also be an effective diversification tool, helping you get low-cost exposure to assets that may otherwise be difficult to access as an SMSF investor.

Issues to consider

While ETFs are often seen as a low-cost option, remember that you’ll still pay a management fee. You’ll also pay brokerage when you buy and sell, and those costs can add up. As a result, they can sometimes be more expensive than an off-market managed fund, depending on how you invest.

How to access them

You can buy and sell ETFs on the stock market through an online broker such as CommSec or your financial adviser.

3. Managed funds

You can use managed funds to get affordable exposure to a wide range of income generating assets.


Managed funds offer an enormous choice of investments, each tailored for a different balance between risk and return. Depending on the fund, you may also be able to switch options at no cost, without realising a taxable capital gain. If you choose an actively managed fund, your investment will be overseen by professionals with specialist expertise in your chosen asset class.

Issues to consider

Professional expertise is great to have, but it does come at a cost. Not only will you pay higher fees for active management, you’ll lose control over investment choices - which can be challenging for some SMSF investors.

How to access them

Invest directly with the fund manager or through your financial adviser.

4. Hybrids

Typically issued by a company raising capital, hybrids combine features of both shares and bonds. Like bonds, they generally give you regular payments over a set term; like shares, they’re traded on the stock exchange.


Hybrids may give you the best of both worlds, combining high, bond-like yields with the simplicity and transparency of shares.

Issues to consider

Each hybrid is a one-off, with its own individual terms, and those terms can be complex. So it’s important to understand them thoroughly before you invest. Be aware that they can include provisions that could work to your disadvantage if the issuer runs into trouble - unexpectedly converting your holdings into ordinary shares, for example.

How to access them

You can buy and sell hybrids on the ASX, like shares.

Building your portfolio

With so many options to choose from, there’s no need to stop at one. By creating a diversified portfolio of income-producing assets for your SMSF, you can potentially earn higher yields while keeping risks under control.

It can be a good idea to choose investments with a range of maturity dates, so you don’t end up re-investing all your capital at a time when returns are low.

Remember that you’ll need to keep some cash handy to cover the costs of running your SMSF, like auditing, administration and advice. That’s where a high interest SMSF cash account can help.

Remember that the capital value of all of these investments can be volatile.

Even bonds might not give you your capital back if you trade them rather than holding them to maturity. In particular, if interest rates rise and you have to sell a bond before the maturity date, you may face a capital loss.

Unlike cash, none of these investments are government guaranteed.

However, as always, you can reduce risk through effective diversification.

If you need help building your portfolio, talk to a financial planner. They can work with you to tailor a portfolio that fits your precise needs, while still leaving you in the driver’s seat.

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For more information, visit the Commonwealth Bank's website.