What are Bonds? An Overview of Bond Investing

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When building an investment portfolio, most people focus on an asset allocation that includes to main types of assets: stocks and bonds. While we hear about stocks all the time (thanks to a financial media fixated on the Dow Jones Industrial Average), many of us don’t really hear much about bonds. However, bonds can be an interesting addition to your portfolio. They offer a certain degree of safety in some situations, and they can also provide a regular source of income.

Bonds are investments, though, so there is the possibility of loss. Your bond investments aren’t going to be insured by the FDIC, and you need to be aware of that. However, when carefully considered, bonds can make a solid addition to your investment plan.

What are Bonds?

Basically, bonds are loans. You loan your money to an organization for a set period of time. The organization uses the money to fund its operations, and pays you interest over the life of the loan. When the bond’s term ends, you receive your principal back. The reason that bonds are considered “less risky” than stocks and some other investments is due to the fact that you are supposed to receive your principal back. With stocks, you can lose your principal, but with bonds, even if something happens and you don’t receive your interest, you often recover some of your principal.

Of course, there is still the risk of default. An organization can choose not to pay what it owes. However, before things get to that point, you have still collected interest on the bond, so you don’t usually lose everything (although that’s certainly a possibility). Investing with bonds comes with its risks, but many agree that bonds represent one of the less risky asset classes. When you decide to invest, it’s important to remember that you can still lose out.

As you read about news on bonds, it’s important to keep in mind that prices and yields move inversely to each other. This means that when bond prices rise, yields are going down. When prices drop, yields head higher. Remember that the yield is the interest that you are paid. Also, keep in mind that a higher yield often means a greater risk. Organizations need to pay a higher yield in order to encourage investors to take on the greater risk of default.

4 Main Types of Bonds

There are different types of bonds, most of them classified according to the type of organization issuing them. Here are some of the main types of bonds that you are most likely to invest in:

  • U.S. government bonds: These types of bonds are issued by the U.S. Treasury, and are often referred to as Treasuries. You can purchase different types of U.S. Treasuries from TreasuryDirect.gov. In addition to “regular” bonds with different term lengths (ranging from one year to more than 10 years), you can also find different types of inflation-protect bonds that guarantee that your yield will be adjusted to keep pace with inflation.
  • Foreign government bonds: You can also invest in bonds from foreign governments. Many governments issue bonds to raise capital for funding operations. While U.S. Treasuries offer relatively low yields (they are considered some of the safest investments on earth), some governments offer higher yields. A recent Spanish auction saw bonds with yields in excess of 5%. Emerging market governments are known for their higher yields. But with that higher yield comes a higher risk of loss.
  • Municipal bonds: Municipal bonds are issued by cities and states in the U.S. You can purchase bonds to help with different projects. Often, you receive a tax break on the interest earned from municipal bonds — a tax break you don’t get when you earn interest on many other types of bonds.
  • Corporate bonds: These are bonds issued by companies. Many companies issue bonds for funding, and you can often see a certain level of stability, while receiving a decent return. The riskier the company, the higher your potential return.

You can purchase any bond, usually, with the help of a broker, online or offline, or from entities directly. It’s also possible to invest in bonds using index funds and ETFs.

You can learn about how likely an organization is to default by paying attention to ratings. Ratings agencies like Fitch and S&P rate bonds. The highest-rated bonds yield lower than other bonds with lower ratings. A bond that is rated AAA is considered less likely to be defaulted on than one that has a BB rating. While there are problems with the bond rating system, you can get an idea of how risky a bond might be.

5 thoughts on “What are Bonds? An Overview of Bond Investing”

  1. Here is my dilema with bonds. I don’t believe in debt, so should I use debt instruments to make money? Is it feeding the wheel of debt if I use bonds? Any thoughts on the ethics of using bonds?

  2. Interesting conundrum, Brent. One of the things to remember about bonds on the corporate level (or government level) is that they are often used to take care of funding in a way that keeps things moving smoothly. Income for many organizations that issue bonds is not completely predictable all the time (waiting on payments from others, and waiting for revenues, etc.), and for some companies, bonds are what ensure that they have the cash flow needed on a regular basis to pay employees, or to invest in company growth. Bonds (such as municipal bonds) can also help raise capital for projects of benefit to the public. It’s kind of like how most of us use a mortgage to get the capital needed to buy a home. Without debt, many companies would be unable to succeed because they wouldn’t have the necessary capital.

    In the end, though, it’s up to you. I think of it much the same way I use credit cards. I use them to ease the cash flow from my sometimes-irregular income. I pay off the balance each month (or most of it), but I use credit cards as a way to keep things moving smoothly in the event that a client pays late or something else happens. Then, at the end of the month, when all the money is amassed in my account, I can pay off the credit card balances.

  3. Miranda,

    Thanks for you well thought out response and your article was spot on as always.

    I think I am leaning more on the side of not using bonds in my portfolio if I can help it. (most mutual funds have at least a few bonds in the mix). True, companies and governments use debt to raise money and meet payroll, but I know there are companies who don’t use debt and make their payments each month on time. They save along the way to have a large stash of cash (retained earnings) to keep floating the payroll.

    It can be done in government, business, and our personal lives. (forgive my ranting). If we continue to support bonds then we are saying debt is ok (in my opinion).

  4. Thanks for your viewpoint ­čÖé I think it really comes down to personal choice, and beliefs. I don’t have a problem with moderate and judiciously used debt, but I understand your viewpoint as well.

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