- Coupon: The interest payments a bondholder receives until the bond matures.
- Corporate bond: Debt instrument issued by a company, distinct from one issued by a government or government agency.
- Credit risk: The risk of loss of principal or loss of coupon payments stemming from a borrower’s failure to repay a loan or otherwise meet a contractual obligation.
- Credit spread: The yield differential between a corporate bond and an equivalent maturity sovereign bond. For example, if the 10-year Treasury note is trading at a yield of 2% and a 10-year corporate bond is trading at a yield of 4%, the credit spread is 2% or 200bps.
- Fallen angel: An investment-grade company that has subsequently had its debt downgraded to speculative grade.
- Interest rate risk: When interest rates rise, the market value of fixed-income securities (such as bonds) declines. Similarly, when interest rates decline, the market value of fixed-income securities increases.
- Maturity: The number of years left until a bond repays its principal to investors.
- Rising star: A company whose bond rating has been increased by a credit rating agency due to an improvement in credit quality.
- Yield: The income return or interest received from a bond.
What are corporate bonds?
When companies want to expand operations or fund new business ventures, they often turn to the corporate bond market to borrow money. A company determines how much it would like to borrow and then issues a bond offering in that amount; investors that buy a bond are effectively lending money to the company according to the terms established in the bond offering or prospectus.
Unlike equities, ownership of corporate bonds does not signify an ownership interest in the company that has issued the bond. Instead, the company pays the investor a rate of interest over a period of time and repays the principal at the maturity date established at the time of the bond’s issue.
While some corporate bonds have redemption or call features that can affect the maturity date, most are loosely categorized into the following maturity ranges:
- Short-term notes (with maturities of up to five years)
- Medium-term notes (with maturities ranging between five and 12 years)
- Long-term bonds (with maturities greater than 12 years)
In addition to maturity, corporate bonds are also categorized by credit quality. Credit rating agencies such as Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s provide independent analysis of corporate bond issuers, grading each issuer according to its creditworthiness. Corporate bond issuers with lower credit ratings tend to pay higher interest rates on their corporate bonds.
How are corporate bonds rated?
The corporate dividing line: investment-grade and speculative-grade.
Corporate bonds fall into two broad credit classifications: investment-grade and speculative-grade (or high yield) bonds. Speculative-grade bonds are issued by companies perceived to have a lower level of credit quality compared to more highly rated, investment-grade, companies. The investment-grade category has four rating grades while the speculative-grade category is comprised of six rating grades.
Historically, speculative-grade bonds were issued by companies that were newer, were in a particularly competitive or volatile sector or had troubling fundamentals. Today, there are also many companies whose businesses are designed to operate with the degree of leverage traditionally associated with speculative-grade companies. While a speculative-grade credit rating indicates a higher default probability, these bonds typically compensate investors for the higher risk by paying higher interest rates, or yields. Credit ratings can be downgraded if the credit quality of the issuer deteriorates or upgraded if fundamentals improve.
Fallen angels, rising stars and split ratings
“Fallen angel” is a term that describes an investment-grade company that has fallen on hard times and has subsequently had its debt downgraded to speculative grade. “Rising star” refers to a company whose bond rating has been increased by a credit rating agency due to an improvement in the credit quality of the issuer. Since the credit rating agencies’ ratings are subjective, there are also times when they do not concur on the rating – an occurrence known as a “split rating.” Fallen angels, rising stars and split ratings may all present opportunities for investors to add additional yield by assuming greater risk due to the potential volatility of their ratings.
How are corporate bonds priced?
The price of a corporate bond is influenced by several factors, including the maturity, the credit rating of the company issuing the bond and the general level of interest rates. The yield of a corporate bond fluctuates to reflect changes in the price of the bond caused by shifts in interest rates and the markets’ perception of the issuer’s credit quality. Most corporates typically have more credit risk and higher yields than government bonds of similar maturities. This divergence creates a credit spread between corporates and government bonds, so that the corporate bond investor earns extra yield by taking on greater risk. The credit spread affects the price of the bond and can be graphically plotted and measured as the difference between the yield of a corporate and government bond at each point of maturity.
Why invest in corporate bonds?
Corporate bonds can offer a range of potential benefits including:
- Diversification: Corporates offer the opportunity to invest in a variety of economic sectors. Within the broad spectrum of corporates there is a wide divergence of risk and yield. Corporate bonds can add diversification to an equity portfolio as well as diversify a fixed income portfolio of government bonds or other fixed income securities.
- Income: Corporates have the potential to provide attractive income. Most corporate bonds pay on a fixed semiannual schedule. One exception is zero-coupon bonds, which do not pay interest but are sold at a deep discount and then redeemed for full face value at maturity. Another exception is floating-rate bonds that have fluctuating interest rates tied to a money market reference rate such as the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) or federal funds rate. These tend to have lower yields than fixed-rate securities of comparable maturities but also less fluctuation in principal value.
- Higher yields: Corporates tend to provide higher yields than comparable maturity government bonds.
- Liquidity: Corporate bonds can be sold at any time prior to maturity in a large and active secondary trading market.
What are the risks?
Similar to government bonds, corporate bonds are exposed to interest rate risk. In addition, corporate bonds also have credit or default risk - the risk that the borrower fails to repay the loan and defaults on its obligation. The level of default risk varies based on the underlying credit quality of the issuer.
Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results.
The credit quality of a particular security or group of securities does not ensure the stability or safety of an overall portfolio. The quality ratings of individual issues/issuers are provided to indicate the credit-worthiness of such issues/issuer and generally range from AAA, Aaa, or AAA (highest) to D, C, or D (lowest) for S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch respectively.
A word about risk: Investing in the bond market is subject to risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit, inflation risk, and liquidity risk. The value of most bonds and bond strategies are impacted by changes in interest rates. Bonds and bond strategies with longer durations tend to be more sensitive and volatile than those with shorter durations; bond prices generally fall as interest rates rise, and the current low interest rate environment increases this risk. Current reductions in bond counterparty capacity may contribute to decreased market liquidity and increased price volatility. Bond investments may be worth more or less than the original cost when redeemed. Corporate debt securities are subject to the risk of the issuer’s inability to meet principal and interest payments on the obligation and may also be subject to price volatility due to factors such as interest rate sensitivity, market perception of the creditworthiness of the issuer and general market liquidity. Certain U.S. government securities are backed by the full faith of the government. Obligations of U.S. government agencies and authorities are supported by varying degrees but are generally not backed by the full faith of the U.S. government. Portfolios that invest in such securities are not guaranteed and will fluctuate in value. Floating rate loans are not traded on an exchange and are subject to significant credit, valuation and liquidity risk. Equities may decline in value due to both real and perceived general market, economic and industry conditions. Diversification does not ensure against loss.
There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions or are suitable for all investors and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market.
It is not possible to invest directly in an unmanaged index.
This material has been distributed for informational purposes only and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Investors should consult their investment professional prior to making an investment decision. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.
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