Bonds have a number of characteristics of which you need to be aware. All of these factors play a role in determining the value of a bond and the extent to which it fits in your portfolio.

Face Value/Par Value
The face value (also known as the par value or principal) is the amount of money a holder will get back once a bond matures. A newly issued bond usually sells at the par value. Corporate bonds normally have a par value of $1,000, but this amount can be much greater for government bonds.

What confuses many people is that the par value is not the price of the bond. A bond's price fluctuates throughout its life in response to a number of variables (more on this later). When a bond trades at a price above the face value, it is said to be selling at a premium. When a bond sells below face value, it is said to be selling at a discount.

Coupon (The Interest Rate)
The coupon is the amount the bondholder will receive as interest payments. It's called a "coupon" because sometimes there are physical coupons on the bond that you tear off and redeem for interest. However, this was more common in the past. Nowadays, records are more likely to be kept electronically.

As previously mentioned, most bonds pay interest every six months, but it's possible for them to pay monthly, quarterly or annually. The coupon is expressed as a percentage of the par value. If a bond pays a coupon of 10% and its par value is $1,000, then it'll pay $100 of interest a year. A rate that stays as a fixed percentage of the par value like this is a fixed-rate bond. Another possibility is an adjustable interest payment, known as a floating-rate bond. In this case the interest rate is tied to market rates through an index, such as the rate on Treasury bills.

You might think investors will pay more for a high coupon than for a low coupon. All things being equal, a lower coupon means that the price of the bond will fluctuate more.

Maturity
The maturity date is the date in the future on which the investor's principal will be repaid. Maturities can range from as little as one day to as long as 30 years (though terms of 100 years have been issued).

A bond that matures in one year is much more predictable and thus less risky than a bond that matures in 20 years. Therefore, in general, the longer the time to maturity, the higher the interest rate. Also, all things being equal, a longer term bond will fluctuate more than a shorter term bond.




Issuer

The issuer of a bond is a crucial factor to consider, as the issuer's stability is your main assurance of getting paid back. For example, the U.S. government is far more secure than any corporation. Its default risk (the chance of the debt not being paid back) is extremely small - so small that U.S. government securities are known as risk-free assets. The reason behind this is that a government will always be able to bring in future revenue through taxation. A company, on the other hand, must continue to make profits, which is far from guaranteed. This added risk means corporate bonds must offer a higher yield in order to entice investors - this is the risk/return tradeoff in action.

The bond rating system helps investors determine a company's credit risk. Think of a bond rating as the report card for a company's credit rating. Blue-chip firms, which are safer investments, have a high rating, while risky companies have a low rating. The chart below illustrates the different bond rating scales from the major rating agencies in the U.S.: Moody's, Standard and Poor's and Fitch Ratings.

Bond Rating Grade Risk
Moody\'s S&P/ Fitch
Aaa AAA Investment Highest Quality
Aa AA Investment High Quality
A A Investment Strong
Baa BBB Investment Medium Grade
Ba, B BB, B Junk Speculative
Caa/Ca/C CCC/CC/C Junk Highly Speculative
C D Junk In Default

Notice that if the company falls below a certain credit rating, its grade changes from investment quality to junk status. Junk bonds are aptly named: they are the debt of companies in some sort of financial difficulty. Because they are so risky, they have to offer much higher yields than any other debt. This brings up an important point: not all bonds are inherently safer than stocks. Certain types of bonds can be just as risky, if not riskier, than stocks.


Next: Bond Basics: Yield, Price And Other Confusion »



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