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On bonds, bailouts and respecting our fellow Americans

Today, let’s talk about two seemingly unrelated things: bond markets and farmer bailouts. What they have in common is that they’re both interesting, and they both tell us a lot about what’s going on in the world these days.

Bonds first.

Bonds have been positively exciting lately — by bond market standards, at least. That’s because bond yields — the interest that a bond pays divided by its market price — are oscillating up and down much more than usual, amid talk of worldwide economic slowdowns.

There are also occasional days when shorter-term U.S. Treasury securities carry higher interest yields than longer-term Treasurys do, creating what bond biz types call an “inverted yield curve.” That phenomenon supposedly predicts a recession — but often doesn’t. As bond mavens have been known to say, inverted yield curves have predicted nine of the past five recessions.

So the question arises: What should regular retail investors — like most of us, including me — do about these bond bounces?

The answer is what it has always been: Don’t get excited, remember your long-term goals and don’t get distracted by market noise.

If you want to own bonds to diversify your portfolio or lock in fixed amounts of income, or to avoid having to obsess full time over the stock market, you should probably think in terms of buying low-cost bond mutual funds with good long-term records rather than buying individual bonds.

Be prepared, however, to see the price of your bond fund shares lurch — rising when rates are falling and falling when rates are rising.

The other thing you should know is that, unlike an individual bond, a bond fund doesn’t mature. An individual bond comes due at some point, so you can count on getting your capital back (unless the issuer has defaulted). But a bond fund is perpetual — it just keeps on replacing bonds in its portfolio.

If you want to buy individual bonds because you like the idea of collecting regular interest checks and the idea of a fixed due date, and you don’t want to pay fees to fund managers, pick bonds that you feel comfortable holding to maturity. And then hold them to maturity.

Please note that I’m talking to my fellow retail investors, not to professional investors who don’t need any advice from me. (Or at least, shouldn’t need it.)

So if you’re a retail investor and find bond yields attractive (which I don’t) and want to own individual bonds, just buy the bonds you want, collect your interest and collect your principal when the bonds mature.

Don’t worry about fluctuating interest rates, or whether the Treasury yield curve is inverted. Just sit there, collect your money, and get on with your life. Don’t overthink things.

This brings us to our second topic: the current farmer bailout. And what I think it shows about how badly our country is divided these days.

I’m talking about the $16 billion in “emergency” funds that Donald Trump is taking from taxpayers and giving to Big Agriculture and some family farms to make up for the damage they’re suffering from the way he’s handling the trade war that he started with China.

I don’t begrudge farmers their money — although I have a problem with Trump declaring a bogus “emergency,” like other bogus “emergencies” he has invented to impose tariffs on our allies like Canada.

I can’t help thinking about how $16 billion in federal money — the amount Trump is spending to please his supposed electoral base — is very close to the amount of federal money being sought by New York and my home state of New Jersey to build new commuter rail tunnels under the Hudson River to forestall a transportation disaster that could drag down the Northeast Corridor’s economy.

The existing rail tunnels are ancient, haven’t been maintained well, and are now in big trouble because they were flooded with salt water during hurricanes.

Fixing and expanding the system is supposedly going to cost about $30 billion — half from the feds (which is where I get my $16 billion from), half from New York and New Jersey.

Not a penny of federal money has been forthcoming, however, thanks to Trump’s animus against New York and New Jersey, which are, shall we say, more than a little unlikely to ever vote for him. I can’t imagine a penny coming while Trump is in office and in control.

If our nation can spend $16 billion to bail out farmers this year, we sure can spend $16 billion of long-term money to help the ultra-important Northeast commuter lines and Amtrak train lines.

Here’s my proposal: Let’s try to treat each other like Americans. It’s time that we urban Northeast types should stop sneering at farmers despite their having voted overwhelmingly for Trump. And farmland folk should remember that we Northeasterners are as American as they are.

And that’s my bottom line.