MythTip: Recession Part 2 — Consider Bonds

This post is a follow-up for MythTip: Recession Part 1. If you are nearing the time when you want to pull out your money from your investments, then bonds might be a good way to take advantage of a down market and lock in good interest rates for the future. This post will take a look at the interest rate gains that bonds can provide, and what to look for in a bond.

What is a Bond?

A bond is kind of like the opposite of a stock. When you buy a stock, you buy a piece of the ownership of the company. When you buy a bond, you are lending money to a company. When you buy a bond, you receive interest on the money that you lend to the company. These payments are typically made on either an annual or semi-annual basis, although other payment arrangements certainly exist. When the bond matures (read below), you get your full purchase price back.

Why Invest in Bonds

The return that bonds provide are dependant on a lot of factors, but many times they will be good investments when stocks are poor investments. Bonds can provide gains both from the interest paid to the bondholder and from potential increases in the price of the bond. This dual gains capacity is what really provides bonds with the ability to provide strong returns in a down market. Consider adding bonds to your portfolio when the stock market is performing poorly.

Bond Language

The words used in describing bonds and the returns they provide can seem like a totally foreign language. Here are the important terms you need to know about bonds. These will help smooth the future discussion.

  • Price. This is the price you pay for the bond. Bonds can sell at face value, a discount, or a premium. More on bond pricing in the next mythtip in this series.
  • Coupon Rate. This is the interest rate that the bond will pay. It is a percentage of the original price of the bond that is paid each year. i.e. a bond that originally sold for $1,000 with a 7% coupon rate will pay $70 per year.
  • Yield to Maturity (YTM). This is the effective interest rate that the bond will pay if you buy it at it’s current price.
  • Callable. A bond that is callable can be recalled by the company any time if interest rates for bonds drop. A callable bond is significantly less preferable than a non-callable bond because the call option makes it so that if you are getting a high return, the company can take that high return away from you an replace it with a lower return.
  • Rating. This is very important. There are several companies that look at all the bonds that are issued and rate the riskiness of the bond based upon the relative strength of the company that issued the bond. Ratings are alphabetical: AAA is the best, then AA, A, BBB, BB, B, etc. Bonds with a rating below BBB are considered junk bonds, and are significantly riskier than bonds with ratings higher than BBB. Bonds with ratings higher than BBB are considered investment grade. It is not recommended for anyone except serious speculators to buy junk bonds.
  • Maturity. This is the time period over which the bond will pay interest. At the end of the maturity period, the company will return the purchase price of the bond.

How They Work

Bonds are very complex. Many finance students struggle to understand the financial calculations and the logic involved with bonds. YTM calculations are among the more difficult calculations in all of finance because the logic behind the calculation can be quite confusing. Fortunately, you do not have to be able to make bond calculations in order to be able to make good bond-purchase decisions. Let’s take a look at an acutal bond today to help you get an understanding of what to look for in a bond.

Alltell Corp Bond

ALLTEL corporation issued this bond in June of 2002. The original price was $1,000 per bond, the coupon rate is 7.875%, and the maturity date is July 2032. So this bond will pay whomever holds the bond $78.75 each year. Today, the price of the bond is $872.50. This bond is selling at a discount because current coupon rates for a comparable bond today are higher than the coupon rate of this bond (if that didn’t make sense, don’t worry, I’ll address bond pricing in the next post). The bond is rated “A”, so it is of moderate-to-low risk relative to other investment grade bonds. This bond is NOT callable.

Now let’s look at the YTM. The YTM for this bond is 9.816%. This is the important factor. The YTM determines how what interest rate you will actually earn if you buy the bond today. The reason the YTM is higher than the coupon rate is because the bond is selling at a discount. You will only have to invest $872.50 in order to get $72.50 per year. That is a 9.816% return. And this return is guaranteed for as long as the company is in business. In July 2032, you would get the original purchase price ($1,000) back. That is not a bad investment by any stretch of the imagination.

Bond Basics Summary

There are certainly times when bonds are more attractive investments than at other times. Consider bonds at times when the stock market is performing poorly. When stocks are doing poorly, people begin moving their money into bonds. This increases the demand for bonds and forces the interest rates on bonds up. But don’t forget that when stocks are low, it’s also a good time to buy stocks. Either way could be profitable, but bonds are certainly the less volatile way to attempt to cash in on a down market. When looking for a bond, look for a high YTM with a good rating. If you can find a bond that meets both criteria, then look for a non-callable bond. Also keep an eye on the maturity date. Longer maturity dates can be good to lock in your return for a longer period of time, but they also tend to have lower returns, so keep an eye on that as well.

Posted on 23 Oct 2008