Personal Finance 101: What Is a Bond?

Pros and Cons of Bonds

Amy writes in:

You often talk about investing in bonds. I don’t even understand what bonds are, let alone how to invest in them!

pf101Well, let’s start at the beginning.

What Is a Bond?

To put it simply, a bond is a way for an investor to buy a piece of someone’s debt, usually a government or a large company.

Here’s a clear example. Let’s say your city wants to raise money to put in some new roads. They don’t have enough money in their current budget to pay for it, but they’re quite able to put aside money in future budgets for the bridge.

The city’s solution? Issue bonds. They sell bonds to the general public for a certain price (the issue price) to raise money. Investors buy these bonds from the city, putting their money directly in the city’s coffers.

What does the bond buyer get? A bond states that on some regular basis, the person buying the bond will receive a certain small payment (known as the coupon). Then, when the bond matures, the person who bought the bond will receive the face amount of the bond.

So, here’s another example. Let’s say you buy a $10,000 bond from the city. It’s set to mature in ten years (meaning the city will give you back your $10K at that time). Until then, the bond states that you’ll receive a payment of $175 every six months – that’s the coupon rate.

Usually, bonds are issued by governments and large corporations to finance big purchases that they don’t have the cash on hand to pay for at that moment. But that’s a risk, right? What if they can’t make good on that payment? That’s why bonds come with bond ratings, which give an indication of how reliable the organization issuing the bond is. Some issuers are very secure (like the governments of first world nations), while others are much less secure (companies that are in poor financial shape) – the latter are usually called junk bonds and aren’t solid investments for laypeople.

Advantages of Bonds

The big advantage of buying bonds is that they’re reliable. The bond issuer is legally bound to make those regular payments to you and to pay you back the face value when the bond matures. The only real risk is the stability of the bond issuer, which is why many people not involved in financial careers stick to very safe issuers, like the federal government.

Thus, if you stick to big issuers like the federal government, they’re quite safe, too.

Another benefit of bonds is that some types of bonds (particularly municipal bonds – ones issued by cities for improvement projects) have tax advantages. Most municipal bonds are exempt from federal and state income tax.

Disadvantages of Bonds

So why would you not invest in bonds, if they’re so safe? Typically, very safe bonds don’t have a very strong return at all.

Take, for example, current returns on bonds issued by the U.S. government. Short term ones (3 month, 6 month, and 1 year treasuries) are paying no coupon rate at all, which means that all the government has to do to fulfill the bond is pay you back the face value at the end – no interest, no nothing. The only way to make money on these right now is to buy them a bit below their face value – thankfully, the government sells these at auction, which means that you can buy them just a bit below their face value (but still return less than 1%). Alternately, you can lock your money down for thirty years – but you’ll only get 3.5% of the amount you invest in annual payments, which isn’t great, either.

While this is an extreme example that’s only occurring because of the special economic times we live in, the basic idea is still true – bonds typically don’t earn great returns. What they do is earn safe returns.

Buying Bonds

So how can you buy bonds?

If you’re interested in buying them from the federal government, you can buy them directly via Treasury Direct. For many people who want to handle all of their own investing, this is a great way to buy individual bonds.

If you’re interested in municipal bonds, you’ll likely have to buy them through a brokerage. Some municipalities allow individuals to buy bonds directly from them, but minimum investments are usually well into the thousands.

If you want to buy other types of bonds (bonds issued by other governments or by corporations), you’ll likely have to use a brokerage for such purposes.

My recommendations are pretty simple. Either buy federal bonds directly from Treasury Direct, or buy a bond index fund from a reputable investment house, like Vanguard (the one I use). Going beyond this requires both a strong sense of risk and a lot of time to appropriately research your options.

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