Understanding Investing

Bonds

The bond market is by far the largest securities market in the world, providing investors with virtually limitless investment options. Many investors are familiar with aspects of the market, but as the number of new products grows, even a bond expert is challenged to keep pace. Once viewed as a means of earning interest while preserving capital, bonds have evolved into a $100 trillion global marketplace that can offer many potential benefits to investment portfolios, including attractive returns. Before tackling the complexities of this huge and diverse market, it is important to understand the basics: What is a bond and how can bonds help meet your investment goals?

What makes a bond a bond?

A bond is a loan that the bond purchaser, or bondholder, makes to the bond issuer. Governments, corporations and municipalities issue bonds when they need capital. An investor who buys a government bond is lending the government money. If an investor buys a corporate bond, the investor is lending the corporation money. Like a loan, a bond pays interest periodically and repays the principal at a stated time, known as maturity.

Suppose a corporation wants to build a new manufacturing plant for $1 million and decides to issue a bond offering to help pay for the plant. The corporation might decide to sell 1,000 bonds to investors for $1,000 each. In this case, the “face value” of each bond is $1,000. The corporation – now referred to as the bond issuer − determines an annual interest rate, known as the coupon, and a time frame within which it will repay the principal, or the $1 million. To set the coupon, the issuer takes into account the prevailing interest rate environment to ensure that the coupon is competitive with those on comparable bonds and attractive to investors. The issuer may decide to sell five-year bonds with an annual coupon of 5%. At the end of five years, the bond reaches maturity and the corporation repays the $1,000 face value to each bondholder.How long it takes for a bond to reach maturity can play an important role in the amount of risk as well as the potential return an investor can expect. A $1 million bond repaid in five years is typically regarded as less risky than the same bond repaid over 30 years because many more factors can have a negative impact on the issuer’s ability to pay bondholders over a 30-year period relative to a 5-year period. The additional risk incurred by a longer-maturity bond has a direct relation to the interest rate, or coupon, the issuer must pay on the bond. In other words, an issuer will pay a higher interest rate for a long-term bond. An investor therefore will potentially earn greater returns on longer-term bonds, but in exchange for that return, the investor incurs additional risk.

Every bond also carries some risk that the issuer will “default,” or fail to fully repay the loan. Independent credit rating services assess the default risk, or credit risk, of bond issuers and publish credit ratings that not only help investors evaluate risk, but also help determine the interest rates on individual bonds. An issuer with a high credit rating will pay a lower interest rate than one with a low credit rating. Again, investors who purchase bonds with low credit ratings can potentially earn higher returns, but they must bear the additional risk of default by the bond issuer.

What determines the price of a bond in the open market?

Bonds can be bought and sold in the “secondary market” after they are issued. While some bonds are traded publicly through exchanges, most trade over-the-counter between large broker-dealers acting on their clients’ or their own behalf.

A bond’s price and yield determine its value in the secondary market. Obviously, a bond must have a price at which it can be bought and sold (see “Understanding bond market prices” below for more), and a bond’s yield is the actual annual return an investor can expect if the bond is held to maturity. Yield is therefore based on the purchase price of the bond as well as the coupon.

A bond’s price always moves in the opposite direction of its yield, as previously illustrated. The key to understanding this critical feature of the bond market is to recognize that a bond’s price reflects the value of the income that it provides through its regular coupon interest payments. When prevailing interest rates fall – notably, rates on government bonds – older bonds of all types become more valuable because they were sold in a higher interest rate environment and therefore have higher coupons. Investors holding older bonds can charge a “premium” to sell them in the secondary market. On the other hand, if interest rates rise, older bonds may become less valuable because their coupons are relatively low, and older bonds therefore trade at a “discount.”

Understanding bond market prices

In the market, bond prices are quoted as a percent of the bond’s face value. The easiest way to understand bond prices is to add a zero to the price quoted in the market. For example, if a bond is quoted at 99 in the market, the price is $990 for every $1,000 of face value and the bond is said to be trading at a discount. If the bond is trading at 101, it costs $1,010 for every $1,000 of face value and the bond is said to be trading at a premium. If the bond is trading at 100, it costs $1,000 for every $1,000 of face value and is said to be trading at par. Another common term is “par value,” which is simply another way of saying face value. Most bonds are issued slightly below par and can then trade in the secondary market above or below par, depending on interest rate, credit or other factors.

Put simply, when interest rates are rising, new bonds will pay investors higher interest rates than old ones, so old bonds tend to drop in price. Falling interest rates, however, mean that older bonds are paying higher interest rates than new bonds, and therefore, older bonds tend to sell at premiums in the market.

On a short-term basis, falling interest rates can boost the value of bonds in a portfolio and rising rates may hurt their value. However, over the long term, rising interest rates can actually increase a bond portfolio’s return as the money from maturing bonds is reinvested in bonds with higher yields. Conversely, in a falling interest rate environment, money from maturing bonds may need to be reinvested in new bonds that pay lower rates, potentially lowering longer-term returns.

Measuring bond risk: what is duration?

The inverse rel