Bond

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A bond is a fixed income instrument that represents a loan made by an investor to a borrower (typically corporate or governmental). A bond could be thought of as an I.O.U. between the lender and borrower that includes the details of the loan and its payments. Bonds are used by companies, municipalities, states, and sovereign governments to finance projects and operations. Owners of bonds are debtholders, or creditors, of the issuer. Bond details include the end date when the principal of the loan is due to be paid to the bond owner and usually includes the terms for variable or fixed interest payments made by the borrower.

The Issuers of Bonds

Governments (at all levels) and corporations commonly use bonds in order to borrow money. Governments need to fund roads, schools, dams or other infrastructure. The sudden expense of war may also demand the need to raise funds. Similarly, corporations will often borrow to grow their business, to buy property and equipment, to undertake profitable projects, for research and development or to hire employees. The problem that large organizations run into is that they typically need far more money than the average bank can provide. Bonds provide a solution by allowing many individual investors to assume the role of the lender. Indeed, public debt markets let thousands of investors each lend a portion of the capital needed. Moreover, markets allow lenders to sell their bonds to other investors or to buy bonds from other individuals—long after the original issuing organization raised capital.

Characteristics of Bonds

  • Face value is the money amount the bond will be worth at maturity; it is also the reference amount the bond issuer uses when calculating interest payments. For example, say an investor purchases a bond at a premium $1,090 and another investor buys the same bond later when it is trading at a discount for $980. When the bond matures, both investors will receive the $1,000 face value of the bond.
  • The coupon rate is the rate of interest the bond issuer will pay on the face value of the bond, expressed as a percentage. For example, a 5% coupon rate means that bondholders will receive 5% x $1000 face value = $50 every year.
  • The maturity date is the date on which the bond will mature and the bond issuer will pay the bondholder the face value of the bond.
  • The issue price is the price at which the bond issuer originally sells the bonds.

Varieties of Bonds

The bonds available for investors come in many different varieties. They can be separated by the rate or type of interest or coupon payment, being recalled by the issuer, or have other attributes. Zero-coupon bonds do not pay coupon payments and instead are issued at a discount to their par value that will generate a return once the bondholder is paid the full face value when the bond matures. U.S. Treasury bills are a zero-coupon bond. Convertible bonds are debt instruments with an embedded option that allows bondholders to convert their debt into stock (equity) at some point, depending on certain conditions like the share price. For example, imagine a company that needs to borrow $1 million to fund a new project. They could borrow by issuing bonds with a 12% coupon that matures in 10 years. However, if they knew that there were some investors willing to buy bonds with an 8% coupon that allowed them to convert the bond into stock if the stock’s price rose above a certain value, they might prefer to issue those. The convertible bond may the best solution for the company because they would have lower interest payments while the project was in its early stages. If the investors converted their bonds, the other shareholders would be diluted, but the company would not have to pay any more interest or the principal of the bond.

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Pricing Bonds

The market prices bonds based on their particular characteristics. A bond's price changes on a daily basis, just like that of any other publicly-traded security, where supply and demand in any given moment determine that observed price. But there is a logic to how bonds are valued. Up to this point, we've talked about bonds as if every investor holds them to maturity. It's true that if you do this you're guaranteed to get your principal back plus interest; however, a bond does not have to be held to maturity. At any time, a bondholder can sell their bonds in the open market, where the price can fluctuate, sometimes dramatically.

The price of a bond changes in response to changes in interest rates in the economy. This is due to the fact that for a fixed-rate bond, the issuer has promised to pay a coupon based on the face value of the bond—so for a $1,000 par, 10% annual coupon bond, the issuer will pay the bondholder $100 each year.

Say that prevailing interest rates are also 10% at the time that this bond is issued, as determined by the rate on a short-term government bond. An investor would be indifferent investing in the corporate bond or the government bond since both would return $100. However, imagine a little while later, that the economy has taken a turn for the worse and interest rates dropped to 5%. Now, the investor can only receive $50 from the government bond, but would still receive $100 from the corporate bond.

This difference makes the corporate bond much more attractive. So, investors in the market will bid up to the price of the bond until it trades at a premium that equalizes the prevailing interest rate environment—in this case, the bond will trade at a price of $2,000 so that the $100 coupon represents 5%. Likewise, if interest rates soared to 15%, then an investor could make $150 from the government bond and would not pay $1,000 to earn just $100. This bond would be sold until it reached a price that equalized the yields, in this case to a price of $666.67.

Real World Bond Example

A bond represents a promise by a borrower to pay a lender their principal and usually interest on a loan. Bonds are issued by governments, municipalities, and corporations. The interest rate (coupon rate), principal amount and maturities will vary from one bond to the next in order to meet the goals of the bond issuer (borrower) and the bond buyer (lender). Most bonds issued by companies include options that can increase or decrease their value and can make comparisons difficult for non-professionals. Bonds can be bought or sold before they mature, and many are publicly listed and can be traded with a broker.

While governments issue many bonds, corporate bonds can be purchased from brokerages. If you're interested in this investment, you'll need to pick a broker. You can take a look at Investopedia's list of the best online stock brokers to get an idea of which brokers best fit your needs. Because fixed-rate coupon bonds will pay the same percentage of its face value over time, the market price of the bond will fluctuate as that coupon becomes more or less attractive compared to the prevailing interest rates. Imagine a bond that was issued with a coupon rate of 5% and a $1,000 par value. The bondholder will be paid $50 in interest income annually (most bond coupons are split in half and paid semiannually). As long as nothing else changes in the interest rate environment, the price of the bond should remain at its par value.

However, if interest rates begin to decline and similar bonds are now issued with a 4% coupon, the original bond has become more valuable. Investors who want a higher coupon rate will have to pay extra for the bond in order to entice the original owner to sell. The increased price will bring the bond’s total yield down to 4% for new investors because they will have to pay an amount above par value to purchase the bond. On the other hand, if interest rates rise and the coupon rate for bonds like this one rise to 6%, the 5% coupon is no longer attractive. The bond’s price will decrease and begin selling at a discount compared to the par value until its effective return is 6%.

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