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.
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.”
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Historically, fixed income investments have generally provided investor stability against the volatility of stocks during periods of market downturn. In recent years, however, navigating the rapidly changing bond market has proven to require a greater level of expertise that often involves time-consuming research and an in-depth understanding of the nuances that are often associated with investing in bonds.
The inverse relationship between price and yield is crucial to understanding value in bonds. Another key is knowing how much a bond’s price will move when interest rates change.
To estimate how sensitive a particular bond’s price is to interest rate movements, the bond market uses a measure known as duration. Duration is a weighted average of the present value of a bond’s cash flows, which include a series of regular coupon payments followed by a much larger payment at the end when the bond matures and the face value is repaid, as illustrated below.
Duration, like the maturity of the bond, is expressed in years, but as the illustration shows, it is typically less than the maturity. Duration will be affected by the size of the regular coupon payments and the bond’s face value. For a zero-coupon bond, maturity and duration are equal since there are no regular coupon payments and all cash flows occur at maturity. Because of this feature, zero-coupon bonds tend to provide the most price movement for a given change in interest rates, which can make zero-coupon bonds attractive to investors expecting a decline in rates.
The end result of the duration calculation, which is unique to each bond, is a risk measure that allows investors to compare bonds with different maturities, coupons and face values on an apples-to-apples basis. Duration provides the approximate change in price that any given bond will experience in the event of a 100-basis-point (one percentage point) change in interest rates. For example, suppose that interest rates fall by 1%, causing yields on every bond in the market to fall by the same amount. In that event, the price of a bond with a duration of two years will rise 2% and the price of a five-year-duration bond will rise 5%.
The weighted average duration can also be calculated for an entire bond portfolio, based on the durations of the individual bonds in the portfolio.