What Is a Bond Ladder?

A bond ladder is a portfolio of fixed-income securities in which each security has a significantly different maturity date.

The purpose of purchasing several smaller bonds with varying dates of maturity rather than one large bond with a single maturity date is to minimize interest-rate risk, increase liquidity, and diversify credit risk.

  • A bond ladder is a portfolio of fixed-income securities in which each security has a significantly different maturity date.
  • In a bond ladder, the bonds' maturity dates are evenly spaced across several months or several years so that the proceeds are reinvested at regular intervals as the bonds mature.
  • The purpose of purchasing several smaller bonds with varying dates of maturity rather than one large bond with a single maturity date is to minimize interest-rate risk, increase liquidity, and diversify credit risk.
  • In order to build an ETF bond ladder, an investor simply needs to put an equal amount of money in a number of different ETFs; all with a different defined maturity date.
  • Since callable bonds can be redeemed by the issuer before maturity, they're not ideal when building a bond ladder.
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What Is A Municipal Bond?

Understanding Bond Ladder

In a bond ladder, the bonds' maturity dates are evenly spaced across several months or several years so that the proceeds are reinvested at regular intervals as the bonds mature.

The more liquidity an investor needs, the closer together their bond maturities should be.

Benefits of a Bond Ladder

Investors who purchase bonds usually buy them as a conservative way to produce income. However, investors looking for a higher yield, without reducing the credit quality, usually need to purchase a bond with a longer maturity. Doing so exposes the investor to three types of risk: interest rate risk, credit risk, and liquidity risk.

When interest rates increase, bond prices react inversely. This especially holds true the longer the maturity date is on a bond. A bond that matures in 10 years fluctuates less in price than a bond that matures in 30 years. If the investor needs some funds before the bond’s maturity, the rise in interest rates causes a lower price for the bond on the open market.

When interest rates rise, the demand for lower interest-paying bonds decreases. This leaves the bond with less liquidity since bond buyers can find similar maturity bonds with higher interest payments. The only way to get a more favorable price in this scenario is to wait for interest rates to go down, which causes the bond to go back up in price.

Buying a large position in one bond could also leave the investor exposed to credit risk.

Similar to owning only one stock in a portfolio, a bond’s price is dependent on the credit of the underlying company or institution. If anything lowers the credit quality of the bonds, the price is negatively impacted immediately.

For example, Puerto Rico bonds were once very popular, but when the province had financial issues, the bond prices immediately plummeted.

Using a bond ladder satisfies these issues. Since there are several bonds with a staggered maturity, bonds are constantly maturing and being reinvested in the current interest rate environment.

If the investor needs liquidity, selling the shorter maturity bonds offers the most favorable pricing. Since there are several different bond issues, the credit risk is spread across the portfolio and properly diversified. If one of the bonds has a downgrade in credit quality, only a portion of the entire ladder is affected.

Generally speaking, you should aim to have at least 10 "rungs" in your bond ladder. All things equal, the more rungs in the ladder, the higher the diversification, liquidity, and yield stability.

Example of a Bond Ladder

Here's an example of a simple bond ladder that retail investors can create.

In order to construct a 10-year Treasury bond ladder, an investor would simply buy the following 10 ETFs in equal amounts:

  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2021 Term Treasury ETF (IBTA)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2022 Term Treasury ETF (IBTB)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2023 Term Treasury ETF (IBTD)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2024 Term Treasury ETF (IBTE)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2025 Term Treasury ETF (IBTF)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2026 Term Treasury ETF (IBTG)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2027 Term Treasury ETF (IBTH)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2028 Term Treasury ETF (IBTI)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2029 Term Treasury ETF (IBTJ)
  • The iShares iBonds Dec 2030 Term Treasury ETF (IBTK)

Bond Ladder FAQs

Should You Build a Bond Ladder With Callable Bonds?

No. Since callable bonds can be redeemed by the issuer before maturity, they're not ideal when building a bond ladder.

How Do You Build an ETF Bond Ladder?

In order to build an ETF bond ladder, an investor simply needs to put an equal amount of money in a number of different ETFs; all with a different defined maturity date.

For example, to build a 10-year corporate bond ladder, an investor could purchase the following ETFs in equal amounts:

  • The Invesco BulletShares 2021 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCL)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2022 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCM)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2023 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCN)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2024 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCO)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2025 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCP)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2026 Corporate Bond ETF (BSJQ)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2027 Corporate Bond ETF (BSJR)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2028 Corporate Bond ETF (BSJS)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2029 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCT)
  • The Invesco BulletShares 2030 Corporate Bond ETF (BSCU)

What Are Alternatives to a Bond Ladder?

Instead of building a bond ladder, an investor can purchase an ETF that holds a diversified portfolio of bonds of varying durations.

Popular all-duration ETFs include the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (ASG), the Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND), the Vanguard Total International Bond ETF (BNDX), and the iShares TIPS Bond ETF.