What does it mean when a bond is selling at a premium? Is it a good investment?
Glad you ask the question before you jump into the bond wagon. Here’s a simple example of learning bond. If a bond sells at its par value or face value, $1,000, with a 5-year term and 5% interest, you will get your $1,000 principal back, plus the annul $50 interest at its maturity. However, life is not always that simple and straight forward as we hope it to be. Depending on the supply and demand, bond’s price can vary, thus the premium or discount price.
For example, when the interest rate falls, older bonds may become valuable because they were sold in a higher interest rate environment and therefore with a higher coupon rate. Consequently, investors holding those bonds can commend a "premium" to sell them. On the other hand, if interest rate rises, older bonds may become less valuable. In order to get rid of them, investors may have to sell for less, thus the "discount” price.
Bond prices are quoted as a percent of the bond’s face value, and an easy way to learn the price of a bond is simply adding a zero to the price quoted. For instance, when you hear a bond is quoted at 99, it means the price for the bond is $990 for every $1,000 of face value. Because the bond price is below the face value, it’s said the bond is traded at a discount. On the other hand, if the bond is trading at 101, it means you will pay $1,010 to get that $1,000 face value bond. Thus, you’re paying a premium. Happy learning!
If a bond is trading at a premium, this simply means it is selling for more than its face value. Why would a bond trade above par (face value)? Because the fixed coupon rate on the bond trading at a premium exceeds the prevailing market rate, or the rate you could otherwise obtain by buying another bond of comparable credit quality and the same duration. As a result, the excess interest payments on the bond that trades at a premium (relative to comparable bonds offered at par) compensate for its higher price.
The premium has nothing to do with whether the bond is a good investment. Bond investments should be evaluated in the context of expected future short and long-term interest rates, whether the interest rate is adequate given the bond's relative default risk, expected inflation, bond duration (i.e. interest rate risk associated with the length of the bond term) and price sensitivity relative to changes in the shape of the yield curve. You should also consider the bond’s coupon relative to the risk free rate; returns that can be generated in the equity market - are equities priced so low that they become a better risk/reward tradeoff? Consider the opportunity cost of funds tied up in the bond that could otherwise be invested elsewhere; expected or potential foreign currency fluctuations (bonds with bullet payments at maturity are more susceptible to FX risk); these, among many other items, should be considered in assessing whether a given bond is a “good” investment. In the end, anything with the potential to impact cash flows on the bond, as well as its risk-adjusted return profile, should be evaluated relative to potential investment alternatives.
Of course, one should also consider the bond investment’s suitability with their investment objectives, as certain investments will be more suitable than others for different people depending on their unique financial situation, investment goals, and tolerance for risk. Investors seeking current income with a low risk tolerance should probably stick to high-quality bonds, whereas those with a longer-term profile and a healthy appetite for risk might prefer the riskier, yet generally higher, current income that can be earned by investing in a Master Limited Partnership (MLP). Those who can afford to lose their investment in an instrument, provided losses are limited to the cost of the instrument and the potential upside is far greater, may want to consider taking long positions in options. Call options have a risk profile that’s asymmetric, weighted heavily to the upside, while losses are limited to the premium paid.
In summary, to evaluate whether an investment, in this case in a bond trading at a premium, is a “good” one requires in-depth analysis of credit risk, FX and interest rate risk, macroeconomic considerations that could impact repayment patterns, the opportunity cost of the investment, and your unique investment objectives and risk tolerance.
When the terms premium and discount are used in reference to bonds, they are telling investors that the purchase price of the bond is either above or below its par value. For example, if a bond with a par value of $1,000 is selling at a premium when it can be bought for more than $1,000 and is selling at a discount when it can be bought for less than $1,000.
Bonds can be sold for more and less than their par values because of changing interest rates. Like most fixed-income securities, bonds are highly correlated to interest rates. When interest rates go up, a bond's market price will fall and vice versa.
To better explain this, let's look at an example. Imagine that the market interest rate is 3% today and you just purchased a bond paying a 5% coupon with a face value of $1,000. If interest rates go down by 1% from the time of your purchase, you will be able to sell the bond for a profit (or a premium). This is because the bond is now paying more than the market rate (because the coupon is 5%). The spread used to be 2% (5%-3%), but it's now increased to 3% (5%-2%). This is a simplified way of looking at a bond's price, as many other factors are involved; however, it does show the general relationship between bonds and interest rates.
As for the attractiveness of the investment, you can't determine whether a bond is a good investment solely based on whether it is selling at a premium or a discount. Many other factors should affect this decision, such as the expectation of interest rates and the credit worthiness of the bond itself.
For more on bonds, check out our Bond Basics tutorial.
The face value of a single bond is typically $1,000. This means that at the bond's maturity date, the holder will get the final interest payment plus $1,000 per bond. When a bond is trading at a premium, it is priced above $1,000 per bond. This can happen if the bond is paying a coupon that is above the prevailing interest rate for the duration in question. This premium paid will represent a capital loss if the bond is held to maturity because it will still pay back $1,000 at maturity (provided the issuer does not default). With that being said, a bond trading at a premium is not necessarily a good or bad investment. It really depends on your objectives and the circumstances causing the premium to exist. The converse is when a bond trades below face value. This is called a discount. And, there are reasons for this condition such as interest rates, credit rating outlook, etc. And, it is worth noting that premium/discount amounts can and do vary over the course of a bond's life span.
Usually a bond has a stated coupon or interest that it will pay. If this coupon is attractive enough to buyers, they can bid up the price of the bond. It will push the value above par and in turn, be selling at a premium. If you were the only one to sell gas during a shortage, the demand for that gas would push the value of gas higher than typically should be.