Before getting to the all-important subject of bond pricing, we must first understand the many different characteristics bonds can have.
When it comes down to it, a bond is simply a contract between a lender and a borrower by which the borrower promises to repay a loan with interest. However, bonds can take on many additional features and/or options that can complicate the way in which prices and yields are calculated. The classification of a bond depends on its type of issuer, priority, coupon rate and redemption features. The following chart outlines these categories of bond characteristics:
1) Bond Issuers
As the major determiner of a bond's credit quality, the issuer is one of the most important characteristics of a bond. There are significant differences between bonds issued by corporations and those issued by a state government/municipality or national government. In general, securities issued by the federal government have the lowest risk of default while corporate bonds are considered to be riskier ventures. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. In rare instances, a very large and stable company could have a bond rating that is better than that of a municipality. It is important for us to point out, however, that like corporate bonds, government bonds carry various levels of risk; because all national governments are different, so are the bonds they issue.
International bonds (government or corporate) are complicated by different currencies. That is, these types of bonds are issued within a market that is foreign to the issuer's home market, but some international bonds are issued in the currency of the foreign market and others are denominated in another currency. Here are some types of international bonds:
- The definition of the eurobond market can be confusing because of its name. Although the euro is the currency used by participating European Union countries, eurobonds refer neither to the European currency nor to a European bond market. A eurobond instead refers to any bond that is denominated in a currency other than that of the country in which it is issued. Bonds in the eurobond market are categorized according to the currency in which they are denominated. As an example, a eurobond denominated in Japanese yen but issued in the U.S. would be classified as a euroyen bond.
- Foreign bonds are denominated in the currency of the country in which a foreign entity issues the bond. An example of such a bond is the samurai bond, which is a yen-denominated bond issued in Japan by an American company. Other popular foreign bonds include bulldog and yankee bonds.
- Global bonds are structured so that they can be offered in both foreign and eurobond markets. Essentially, global bonds are similar to eurobonds but can be offered within the country whose currency is used to denominate the bond. As an example, a global bond denominated in yen could be sold to Japan or any other country throughout the Eurobond market.
In addition to the credit quality of the issuer, the priority of the bond is a determiner of the probability that the issuer will pay you back your money. The priority indicates your place in line should the company default on payments. If you hold an unsubordinated (senior) security and the company defaults, you will be first in line to receive payment from the liquidation of its assets. On the other hand, if you own a subordinated (junior) debt security, you will get paid out only after the senior debt holders have received their share.
3) Coupon Rate
Bond issuers may choose from a variety of types of coupons, or interest payments.
- Straight, plain vanilla or fixed-rate bonds pay an absolute coupon rate over a specified period of time. Upon maturity, the last coupon payment is made along with the par value of the bond.
- Floating rate debt instruments or floaters pay a coupon rate that varies according to the movement of the underlying benchmark. These types of coupons could, however, be set to be a fixed percentage above, below, or equal to the benchmark itself. Floaters typically follow benchmarks such as the three, six or nine-month T-bill rate or LIBOR.
- Inverse floaters pay a variable coupon rate that changes in direction opposite to that of short-term interest rates. An inverse floater subtracts the benchmark from a set coupon rate. For example, an inverse floater that uses LIBOR as the underlying benchmark might pay a coupon rate of a certain percentage, say 6%, minus LIBOR.
- Zero coupon, or accrual bonds do not pay a coupon. Instead, these types of bonds are issued at a deep discount and pay the full face value at maturity.
4) Redemption Features
Both investors and issuers are exposed to interest rate risk because they are locked into either receiving or paying a set coupon rate over a specified period of time. For this reason, some bonds offer additional benefits to investors or more flexibility for issuers:
- Callable, or a redeemable bond features gives a bond issuer the right, but not the obligation, to redeem his issue of bonds before the bond's maturity. The issuer, however, must pay the bond holders a premium. There are two subcategories of these types of bonds: American callable bonds and European callable bonds. American callable bonds can be called by the issuer any time after the call protection period while European callable bonds can be called by the issuer only on pre-specified dates.
The optimal time for issuers to call their bonds is when the prevailing interest rate is lower than the coupon rate they are paying on the bonds. After calling its bonds, the company could refinance its debt by reissuing bonds at a lower coupon rate.
- Convertible bonds give bondholders the right but not the obligation to convert their bonds into a predetermined number of shares at predetermined dates prior to the bond's maturity. Of course, this only applies to corporate bonds.
- Puttable bonds give bondholders the right but not the obligation to sell their bonds back to the issuer at a predetermined price and date. These bonds generally protect investors from interest rate risk. If prevailing bond prices are lower than the exercise par of the bond, resulting from interest rates being higher than the bond's coupon rate, it is optimal for investors to sell their bonds back to the issuer and reinvest their money at a higher interest rate.
All of the characteristics and features described above can be applied to a bond in practically unlimited combinations. For example, you could theoretically have a Malaysian corporation issue a subordinated yankee bond paying a floating coupon rate of LIBOR + 1% that is callable at the choice of the issuer on certain dates of the year.
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