Smart Bond Investing—Understanding Risk
Interest Rate and Call Risk
Remember the cardinal rule of bonds: When interest rates fall, bond prices rise, and when interest rates rise, bond prices fall. Interest rate risk is the risk that changes in interest rates in the U.S. or the world may reduce (or increase) the market value of a bond you hold. Interest rate risk—also referred to as market risk—increases the longer you hold a bond.
Let's look at the risks inherent in rising interest rates.
If you bought a 10-year, $1,000 bond today at a coupon rate of 4 percent, and interest rates rise to 6 percent, two things can happen.
Say you need to sell your 4 percent bond prior to maturity. In doing so, you must compete with newer bonds carrying higher coupon rates. These higher coupon rate bonds decrease the appetite for older bonds that pay lower interest. This decreased demand depresses the price of older bonds in the secondary market, which would translate into you receiving a lower price for your bond if you need to sell it. In fact, you may have to sell your bond for less than you paid for it. For this reason, interest rate risk is also referred to as market risk.
Rising interest rates also make new bonds more attractive (because they earn a higher coupon rate). This results in what's known as opportunity risk—the risk that a better opportunity will come around that you may be unable to act upon. The longer the term of your bond, the greater the chance that a more attractive investment opportunity will become available, or that any number of other factors may occur that negatively impact your investment. This also is referred to as holding period risk—the risk that not only a better opportunity might be missed, but that something may happen during the time you hold a bond to negatively affect your investment.
Bond fund managers face the same risks as individual bondholders. When interest rates rise—especially when they go up sharply in a short period of time—the value of the fund's existing bonds drops, which can put a drag on overall fund performance.
Since bond prices go up when interest rates go down, you might ask what risk, if any, do you face when rates fall? The answer is call risk.
Similar to when a homeowner seeks to refinance a mortgage at a lower rate to save money when loan rates decline, a bond issuer often calls a bond when interest rates drop, allowing the issuer to sell new bonds paying lower interest rates—thus saving the issuer money. For this reason, a bond is often called following interest rate declines. The bond's principal is repaid early, but the investor is left unable to find a similar bond with as attractive a yield. This is known as call risk.
With a callable bond, you might not receive the bond's original coupon rate for the entire term of the bond, and it might be difficult or impossible to find an equivalent investment paying rates as high as the original rate. This is known as reinvestment risk. Additionally, once the call date has been reached, the stream of a callable bond's interest payments is uncertain, and any appreciation in the market value of the bond may not rise above the call price.
To protect against unwelcome calls, always study the call provisions and any published call schedules thoroughly before buying a bond. Ask your broker for complete call information. Remember that bonds are generally called during periods of declining interest rates, so it pays to be particularly mindful of a bond's potential to be called during such times.