To say bond funds are struggling is an understatement: The Morningstar US Core Bond Index fell nearly 13% last year and is about flat for 2023 as of this writing.
However, there’s still a case to be made for holding bond funds in your portfolio. One of the biggest reasons to do so: Bonds are still less risky over the long term than stocks.
Do You Need a Bond Fund?
Investors rely on bonds for many reasons: funding short-term goals, diversifying a stock-heavy portfolio over the long term, or generating income during retirement, to name a few. Before getting down to choosing a bond exchange-traded fund or mutual fund, step back and consider why you need one: What role is it playing for you?
Once you know what need it’s filling, figure out whether a taxable-bond fund or municipal-bond fund is a better choice for you. If you’re investing via a tax-deferred account like an IRA or 401(k), a taxable-bond fund will be the better match. If you’re investing in a taxable account, though, a fund that buys municipal bonds might be the better choice on an aftertax basis.
A good place to start your search for the best bond funds to buy—both taxable and municipal alike—is with the Morningstar Analyst Rating. Mutual funds and ETFs that earn our highest rating of Gold are those that we think are most likely to outperform over a full market cycle.
What Is a Taxable-Bond Fund?
Taxable-bond ETFs and mutual funds invest in fixed-income securities issued by governments and corporations.
The “right” type of taxable-bond fund for you comes down to personal preferences. Will you forgo the incremental yield and diversification benefits that high-quality long-term bond funds typically offer for some protection against rising interest rates? Do you want to stick with the highest-quality bonds you can find, or are you willing to delve into lower-quality bonds in exchange for higher yield? Will you dabble in world bonds for yield pickup—and if yes, do you want currencies in the mix?
To help determine which types of taxable-bond ETFs and mutual funds may make sense in your situation, read “A Checklist for Taxable-Bond-Fund Investors.”
Here are a few broad types of taxable-bond funds to consider:
Domestic Taxable-Bond Funds: ETFs and mutual funds landing in the long-term, intermediate-term, short-term, and ultrashort bond Morningstar Categories cluster here. These bond funds blend government bonds, asset-backed or mortgage-backed securities, investment-grade and high-yield debt, and a modest dose of international bonds. Although some funds are more income-oriented or more opportunistic than others, most provide decent exposure to a variety of bond types.
Flexible-Bond Funds: Multisector and nontraditional bond ETFs and mutual funds land here. Like domestic taxable-bond funds, flexible-bond funds can invest across a mix of bond types. Unlike domestic taxable-bond funds, flexible-bond funds invest more aggressively in lower-quality bonds and/or international debt. And nontraditional bond funds, in particular, enjoy a high degree of interest-rate flexibility and may employ shorting. Simply put, these are the least constrained bond funds.
Government-Bond Funds: The highest-quality taxable-bond mutual funds and ETFs reside in this group. To be included in one of the U.S. government-bond Morningstar Categories, a fund must keep at least 90% of its assets tucked in government securities. Funds that invest strictly in Treasuries, strictly in mortgage-backed securities, or in some combination of the two populate the group. There are three government-focused categories included here, broken down by duration: short government, intermediate government, and long government.
Corporate-Credit Funds: These ETFs and mutual funds favor bonds issued by corporations. Categories in this group include corporate-bond funds, high-yield bond funds, and bank-loan funds. Corporate-bond funds focus on bonds rated investment-grade; these funds, therefore, exhibit some degree of interest-rate sensitivity. High-yield bond funds target bonds rated below-investment-grade; these funds invite more credit risk than interest-rate risk. Finally, bank-loan funds also invest in securities rated below-investment-grade, and their interest payments are periodically reset. Because of their floating rates, bank loans theoretically have less sensitivity to interest-rate movements.
World- and Emerging-Markets Bond Funds: The ETFs and mutual funds in this group favor fixed-income securities issued by governments and corporations outside of the United States. That’s about the only thing they all have in common. World-bond funds must invest at minimum 40% of their assets in non-U.S. debt, but some exclude U.S. debt entirely, or focus on corporates rather than governments, or hedge currencies—or don’t. Emerging-markets debt funds, meanwhile, keep at least 65% of their assets in developing-markets debt; but here, too, there are significant variations in currency strategies.
Inflation-Protected Bond Funds: As their names suggest, inflation-protected bond ETFs and mutual funds seek to protect investors from rising inflation. As such, these funds invest in securities whose principal values adjust along with the rate of inflation.
The Best Taxable-Bond Funds to Invest In
These ETFs and mutual funds all land in one of the taxable-bond Morningstar Categories and have at least one share class that earns our top Analyst Rating of Gold as of March 2023.
- American Funds Bond Fund of America ABNFX
- Baird Aggregate Bond BAGIX
- Baird Core Plus Bond BCOSX
- Baird Short-Term Bond BSBIX
- BlackRock High Yield Bond BHYIX
- BlackRock Total Return MAHQX
- Dodge & Cox Income DODIX
- Fidelity Total Bond FTBFX
- Fidelity Total Bond ETF FBND
- Fidelity U.S. Bond Index FXNAX
- iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF AGG
- Loomis Sayles Core Plus Bond NERYX
- Metropolitan West Total Return Bond MWTIX
- PGIM High Yield PBHAX
- PGIM Short-Term Corporate Bond PSTQX
- Pimco GNMA and Government Securities PDMIX
- Pimco Income PIMIX
- Pimco Long Duration Total Return PLRIX
- Pimco Total Return PTRAX
- Pimco Total Return ESG PTGAX
- Vanguard High-Yield Corporate VWEHX
- Vanguard Long-Term Bond ETF BLV
- Vanguard Long-Term Bond Index VBLLX
- Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF BND
- Vanguard Total Bond Market Index VBTIX
The list is a hodgepodge of styles. Funds like Vanguard Total Bond Market Index and Dodge & Cox Income, for instance, largely favor intermediate-term, high-quality government and corporate bonds. BlackRock High Yield Bond and PGIM High Yield, meanwhile, focus exclusively on lower-quality corporate bonds. Baird Short-Term Bond limits itself to bonds in the one- to three-year maturity range. And Pimco Income can pretty much invest in all the above. Morningstar Investor members can learn more about each of these bond funds by reviewing their Analyst Reports.
What Is a Municipal-Bond Fund?
Municipal-bond ETFs and mutual funds invest in bonds that are issued by state and local governments to finance capital expenditures. Unlike taxable bonds, municipal bonds provide tax advantages that can be especially appealing to higher-income investors who are investing via taxable accounts. How? Municipal bonds are often exempt from federal taxes as well as state and local taxes.
On the surface, municipal bonds appear to yield less than taxable bonds of similar quality and maturity—but that’s before taxes are taken into consideration. How can you determine whether municipal bonds are a good choice for you? Use a tax-equivalent yield calculator to see how a given municipal-bond ETF or mutual fund’s yield compares with the yield of a similar maturity and quality taxable-bond ETF or mutual fund, given your particular tax circumstances.
“What Are Municipal Bonds?” provides five questions to help determine whether municipal bonds are right for you.
The Best Municipal-Bond Funds to Invest In
These ETFs and mutual funds all land in one of the municipal-bond Morningstar Categories and have at least one share class that earns a Gold rating as of March 2023.
- American Funds Tax-Exempt Bond TFEBX
- American Funds Tax-Exempt Fund of California EXCAX
- Fidelity Tax-Free Bond FTABX
- T. Rowe Price Tax-Free High Yield PTYIX
- Vanguard California Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt VCADX
- Vanguard California Long-Term Tax-Exempt VCLAX
- Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt VWALX
- Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt VWITX
- Vanguard Long-Term Tax-Exempt VWLUX
- Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt VMLUX
- Vanguard Ultra Short-term Tax-Exempt VWSUX
As with the list of top-rated taxable-bond ETFs and mutual funds, this list also includes a wide variety of bond funds focusing on different maturities and credit qualities. This list also features a few single-state-focused municipal-bond funds: American Funds Tax-Exempt Fund of California and intermediate- and long-term California options from Vanguard. If you reside in a filing state other than California, you may want to expand your search beyond our Gold-rated list of funds to find a municipal-bond fund focused on your state. You can do so with the Morningstar Investor Screener: Simply choose your investment type (either ETFs or mutual funds) and then select the municipal-bond Morningstar Category for your state.
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The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.