Smart Bond Investing—Bond Basics
To better understand bonds and bond funds, let’s start with some basic concepts.
What's a Bond?
A bond is a loan that an investor makes to a corporation, government, federal agency or other organization. Consequently, bonds are sometimes referred to as debt securities. Since bond issuers know you aren't going to lend your hard-earned money without compensation, the issuer of the bond (the borrower) enters into a legal agreement to pay you (the bondholder) interest. The bond issuer also agrees to repay you the original sum loaned at the bond's maturity date, though certain conditions, such as a bond being called, may cause repayment to be made earlier. The vast majority of bonds have a set maturity date—a specific date when the bond must be paid back at its face value, called par value. Bonds are called fixed-income securities because many pay you interest based on a regular, predetermined interest rate—also called a coupon rate—that is set when the bond is issued.
A bond's term, or years to maturity, is usually set when it is issued. Bond maturities can range from one day to 100 years, but the majority of bond maturities range from one to 30 years. Bonds are often referred to as being short-, medium- or long-term. Generally, a bond that matures in one to three years is referred to as a short-term bond. Medium- or intermediate-term bonds are generally those that mature in four to 10 years, and long-term bonds are those with maturities greater than 10 years. The borrower fulfills its debt obligation typically when the bond reaches its maturity date, and the final interest payment and the original sum you loaned (the principal) are paid to you.
Not all bonds reach maturity, even if you want them to. Callable bonds are common. They allow the issuer to retire a bond before it matures. Call provisions are outlined in the bond's prospectus (or offering statement or circular) and the indenture—both are documents that explain a bond's terms and conditions. While firms are not formally required to document all call provision terms on the customer's confirmation statement, many do so. (When you buy municipal securities, firms are required to provide more call information on the customer confirmation than you will see for other types of debt securities.)
You usually receive some call protection for a period of the bond's life (for example, the first three years after the bond is issued). This means that the bond cannot be called before a specified date. After that, the bond's issuer can redeem that bond on the predetermined call date, or a bond may be continuously callable, meaning the issuer may redeem the bond at the specified price at any time during the call period. Before you buy a bond, always check to see if the bond has a call provision, and consider how that might impact your portfolio investment strategy.
Go to Call Risk for more information.