Equity Markets vs. Fixed-Income Markets: An Overview

The major differences between equity and fixed-income markets are the types of securities traded, the accessibility of the markets, the levels of risk, the expected returns, the goals of investors, and the strategies used by market participants. Stock trading dominates equity markets, while bonds are the most common securities in fixed-income markets. Individual investors often have better access to equity markets than fixed-income markets. Equity markets offer higher expected returns than fixed-income markets, but they also carry higher risk. Equity market investors are typically more interested in capital appreciation and pursue more aggressive strategies than fixed-income market investors.

Key Takeaways

  • The major differences between equity and fixed-income markets are the types of securities traded, the accessibility of the markets, the levels of risk, the expected returns, the goals of investors, and the strategies used by market participants.
  • All equity markets, no matter the type, can be volatile and experience significant price highs and lows.
  • Due to the lower risks and rewards, strategies are often far less varied in fixed-income markets than equity markets.
  • The growth of exchange traded funds (ETFs) has transformed equity and fixed-income markets while blurring the lines between them.

Equity Markets

Equity markets involve the purchases and sales of stocks, conducted on regular trading exchanges. Investors obtain partial ownership of corporations in equity markets, while bonds are solely interest-earning investments. The Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) are among the best-known equity markets. All stock markets, no matter the type, can be volatile and experience significant price highs and lows.

In equity markets, the shares of individual companies are sold to the public in initial public offerings (IPOs) and continue to trade on exchanges after that. Most retail investors are comfortable buying and selling stocks in equity markets. Furthermore, many brokerages charge low or no fees for trading them. They also offer ways to trade fractional shares, so high-priced stocks are available to small investors. Equity markets are generally very accessible.

The high risks and sometimes spectacular profits in equity markets led to the development of multiple strategies, such as growth investing and value investing. A high degree of success in equity markets usually requires greater amounts of research and follow-up on investments than is necessary for fixed-income investments. There are also widely divergent approaches to trading in equity markets, from high-frequency trading to buy and hold. Some traders in equity markets try to enhance gains by using leverage, while others try to reduce risks by hedging.

Beating equity markets is hard rather than easy, so many investors are better off with index funds.

Fixed-Income Markets

The fixed-income market is more commonly referred to as the debt securities market or the bond market. It consists of bond securities issued by the federal government, corporate bonds, municipal bonds, and mortgage debt instruments. The bond market is referred to as a capital market since it provides capital financing for long-term investments.

Debt security investments are generally seen as less risky than equity investments. As such, they typically offer lower potential returns. Debt security investments were traditionally traded over-the-counter (OTC) instead of being centrally traded on exchanges. Fixed income securities are often issued at auctions, such as the U.S. Treasury department's bill auctions. TreasuryDirect is the only way that most investors directly access the fixed-income market. Mutual funds are a far more common way to access corporate bonds in fixed-income markets than participating in the over-the-counter market,

Due to the lower risks and rewards, strategies are often far less varied in fixed-income markets than equity markets. The goal is usually to assure the safety of principal by purchasing only bonds with an investment-grade credit rating. Within those narrow limits, fund managers and investors often look for higher yields. However, capital appreciation is also possible under specific scenarios. The prices of zero-coupon U.S. Treasury bonds can move up substantially as interest rates fall. When distressed credit markets clear up, fallen angels sometimes return to investment-grade status and experience significant price gains in the process.

Special Considerations

The growth of exchange traded funds (ETFs) has transformed equity and fixed-income markets while blurring the lines between them. ETFs may hold any combination of stocks or bonds, but they trade on stock exchanges. ETFs often have reasonable prices, below $100 per share, so they are accessible to all investors. That is more important for bonds, as many small investors could not trade them so easily before.

With ETFs, investors achieve instant diversification and can often determine the quality of securities by merely looking at the label. For example, an investment-grade bond ETF would be an easy way to earn more income than in a savings account with limited risk. For stocks, ETFs offer a substantial reduction in idiosyncratic risk and easier access to foreign markets.