Corporate bonds are IOUs issues by companies when they need to raise cash. They are an alternative source of finances to shares, but instead of then owning part of the company and sharing the profits (which is fairly risky) with a bond you are promised your money back on a certain date with a regular fixed interest payment or “coupon” (originally called that because the bond certificate had coupons attached that could be torn off and redeemed on certain dates) Good solvent companies will pay the coupons and the original sum. The main risk with bonds is that if a company becomes insolvent it may default on their payments.
Bonds can be traded after they have been issued and may have a value above or below the issue price so the coupon (yield) may be more or less than the original published yield and you may make a loss or gain if you hold to matturity. The Gross Redemption Yield is the effective percentage yield you will get if you do hang on to them until expiry (This value is available in financial publications and web-sites) The value of the bond depends on how the apparent solvency, credit rating and bank interests rates have changes since issue
A simple rule of investing states that the higher the risk of an investment the higher the return. This is the Risk Premium: The amount you get paid for taking the extra risk. So if you want to make lots of money you need to take more risks. It is however possible to reduce the risk, without reducing the return, by building a balanced portfolio. The risk of buying a single bond (or share) is high with many possible unknown influences on the price. Buying two bonds results in some reduction of risk because a drop in one price may not affect the other one adversely. Many bonds are highly correlated to each other, so having two bonds in the same field (e.g. BP and Shell) does not reduce the risk as much as two bonds in unrelated industries (e.g. BP and Lloyds) Mixing bonds with other asset-classes will also improve volatility of the over-all portfolio (e.g. mixing shares, bonds, property and gold bars)
Individual bonds can be purchased via a broker, in the same way you might buy shares, stocks etc. or you can buy bond-funds, unit trusts, investment trusts or ETFs (or Zero Dividend Preference Shares which are a more obscure bond-like alternative) To diversify risk, as described above, you need exposure to a range of different bonds; if you want to buy many bonds in a relatively small portfolio you would incur a lot of charges from your broker. For instant exposure to bond markets ETFs (exchange Traded Funds) provide low cost exposure to whole markets or sub-sets of bond markets. For a managed, diversified exposure use unit trusts etc. which have higher charges (typically above 1% annual charge) iShares issue a UK corporate bond-tracker EFT (symbol SLXX) which has very low charges and gives a good exposure to UK corporate bonds, although this does include a lot of financial industry bonds (banks etc.).
Government bonds pay out a defined sum every year (The “coupon”) and a final sum on maturity on a predefined date. The income and final payment is predictable and governments of stable countries rarely default on their payments. Corporate bonds are similar and bond holders will always be paid first, before share-holders (but after any bank debt is paid), even if the company gets into financial trouble, but the health of a company’s finances must always be taken into consideration.
Governments and corporate bonds are rated by rating agencies (Moody give ratings: Aaa to B3 and S&P and Fitch give AAA to CCC-) to indicate the chance of default. A bond rated at AAA or Aaa is extremely unlikely to default, AA/Aa1, A/A2, B/Ba2 or CCC/B3 are increasingly more likely to. Low rated bonds (rated Ba1 to B3 or BB+ to CCC-) are often called high-yield, Sub-investment grade or Junk bonds; the coupons are high to compensate for the chance of default. Higher rated bonds with low chance of default are called “investment grade bonds” (Aaa to Baa3 or AAA to BBB-) Corporate bonds, in general, pay a higher yield depending on the perceived quality of the company.
A simple rule of bond investment: When bank interest rates go down bond prices generally go up because the income from a bond is fixed so the income seems more attractive. How much the price goes up or down is determined by the “duration” of the bond. This is also a measure of risk of the bond; the longer the duration the riskier the bond.
Investing in individual corporate bonds is fairly risky in that the company could default or go bust, so a portfolio of bonds would help to reduce the risk or better still a managed bond fund (e.g. an exchange traded fund or ETF, mutal-fund, unit trust or OEIC) Unfortunately these do no have a defined end date, but they will have an average “duration” value published, just like any bond, which defines the weighted-average amount of time for the bond or fund’s cash-flows to be received by the investor (i.e. how long before half of the total payout – coupons and redemption value – is received) Choosing an ETF with a similar duration to your ideal individual bond would give a similar effect. The lower the duration the less risky the bond or fund and the lower the sensitivity to the bank base rate – as bank base-rate goes up generally the bond-price goes down and vice versa: The Change in bond-price is the duration multiplied by the bond price and the change in bond yield
Corporate bonds are paying historically high yields at the moment, many times higher than you can get from a bank deposit account, but with the possibility of capital gain as well. Usually this should cause concern, but the main reason for this is that bonds have been sold off by hedge funds because they need cash to remain solvent and bonds are easier to sell in a market like this. While stock markets have suffered during recent economic turmoil, bond markets have been more secure. They have not been immune to the banking troubles, but should be far more resilient to further trouble. There are of course risks, but the current price of many bonds would imply a very high rate of insolvency, higher even that during the 1930s. This is of course possible, but seems unlikely. Blue chip shares are also paying a high dividend at the moment, but dividends can be cut with very little warning. With the government starting it’s Quantitative Easing (i.e. buying billions of pounds worth of Gilts and corporate bonds) this may be an excellent opportunity to buy.