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Bonds help investors to diversify their portfolio and also offer the potential to generate a secure income stream and hedge against a stock market downturn.
The global bond market is big business, worth around $133 trillion in 2022 according to a report from the World Economic Forum published in Spring 2023.
Despite its size, the bond market has tended to shun the investment spotlight. During 2022, however, it was thrust centre-stage having suffered an investing bloodbath with the value of global bonds falling by more than 30% – their worst performance in over 200 years.
Previously considered a sanctuary in times of wider market uncertainty, bond prices plummeted as central banks hiked interest rates in an attempt to cool soaring inflation.
Bonds are currently back in the news as some investors weigh up the current economic thinking that suggests the cost of borrowing is liable to remain elevated for longer than anticipated in a bid to keep inflationary pressures at bay.
Here’s a closer look at what there is to know about investing in bonds.
What are bonds?
Bonds are a form of loan or debt issued by governments and companies, with interest paid in the form of a ‘coupon’.
When bonds are first issued, they’re sold to investors on the ‘primary market’. After the initial issue, the bonds may be traded on the ‘secondary market’, or directly between institutional holders (such as investment firms or corporate pension funds).
If you’re considering investing in bonds, it’s worth understanding the following terms:
- Issuer: the entity borrowing the money from the bond purchaser
- Par: the par is the bond’s face value, and this is the amount of money that will be repaid on maturity. It is often priced in increments of £100 or £1,000
- Market value: the bond’s current trading price
- Coupon: the rate of interest paid per year based on a percentage of the par value of the bond. This is usually a fixed amount paid once or twice a year and is also known as the nominal yield
- Maturity: the maturity or redemption date is when the original capital is repaid. Bonds can be classified as short-term (usually up to three years), medium-term (five to 10 years) and long-term (over 10 years)
- Risk: this is the likelihood of the issuer defaulting on their bond repayment – typically, the higher the coupon, the riskier the bond (and vice versa). Agencies such as Standard & Poor’s (S&P), Moody’s and Fitch provide risk ratings for bonds with the highest rating (lowest risk) being AAA, followed by AA, A, BBB and so on.
Let’s take a look at an example: the UK government recently issued a 4.0% Treasury Gilt 2063. The coupon, or interest rate, is 4.0%, meaning that investors would receive £4 per every £100 (face value of the bond) every year until 2063 (redemption date) when the capital will be repaid.
How do bonds work?
The coupon and face value of bonds only form one part of the return. Once bonds start trading on the secondary markets, their price will rise and fall, as with shares. As a result, bonds will trade at a premium or discount to their face value.
For example, the 4.0% Treasury Gilt 2063 is currently trading at a price of £94, a 6% discount to its face value of £100. If you bought one gilt, you’d receive annual interest of £4.
However, the effective annual return, or ‘current yield’ would be higher as you’ve paid less than the face value of £100.
To calculate the current yield, divide the annual coupon of £4 by the current bond price of £94. This means that the current yield would be 4.3%, which is higher than the ‘nominal yield’ of 4.0%.
Alternatively, if the price rose to £105, your yield would be £4 divided by the current bond price of £105. This means that your yield would be 3.8%, which is lower than the nominal yield of 4.0%.
Bonds have delivered an average annualised ‘real’ return of 6% over the last four decades, only marginally below the 7% return from equities, according to Credit Suisse.
What are the different types of bonds?
The main types of bonds available are:
- Government bonds: these are issued by governments and are known as ‘gilts’ in the UK and ‘Treasuries’ in the US. Most gilts have a fixed coupon but some are index-linked to measures of inflation such as the UK Retail Prices Index and may therefore help to hedge against inflation
- Corporate bonds or ‘non-gilts’: these are issued by companies and UK banks, with 98% having fixed coupon rates, according to the US Federal Reserve. These are subdivided into two categories – investment grade (S&P AAA-BBB) and speculative grade or high yield (BB or lower). Speculative grade or ‘junk’ bonds pay a higher coupon rate to compensate investors for the higher risk of default.
The ‘credit spread’ of a corporate bond measures the additional yield to compensate investors for taking on a higher risk. It is calculated as the difference between the yield of the corporate bond and the yield of a government bond of the same maturity.
For example, if a corporate bond had a yield of 6% and the yield on an equivalent government bond was 4%, the credit spread would be 2%. In general, the higher the risk, the higher the credit spread.
Pros of investing in bonds
- Predictable income stream: bonds pay a stable income stream until maturity, whereas dividend payments from shares are not as predictable. Bonds provide a more predictable source of income than equities, which can be helpful if a certain level of income is needed to meet regular payments such as school fees
- Return of capital: bond-holders will receive the face value of the bond on maturity, although this may be higher or lower than the purchase price
- Diversification: bonds can help to diversify a portfolio beyond assets such as shares, property and cash
- Lower-risk option: the UK and US governments have never defaulted on bond payments, making these bonds a lower-risk option than equities.Bonds have also delivered similar returns to equities, with an average annualised ‘real’ return of 6.3% over the last 40 years.
Cons of investing in bonds
- Interest rate risk: a rise in interest rates will reduce the market value of bonds
- Risk of default: there is a risk of default from both corporate and government bond issuers, also known as ‘credit’ risk. Two-thirds of the 215 governments have defaulted on their bond obligations since 1960, according to research carried out by the Banks of England and Canada
- Liquidity issues: bonds with a higher face value and bonds issued by smaller or higher-risk companies may be less tradable due to a smaller pool of potential buyers.
What affects the price of bonds?
Interest rates are one of the key factors impacting the price of bonds. Put simply, if prevailing rates rise above the coupon rate of the bond, the bond will become less attractive because investors can receive a higher rate of interest elsewhere. This will reduce demand for the bond and its price will fall.
In addition to interest rates, three other main factors affect the price of bonds:
- Market conditions: demand for defensive assets such as bonds tends to rise during a stock market downturn.
- Credit ratings: a downgrade in a bond’s credit rating will reduce demand due to the higher risk of default, until the price falls to a level where the yield compensates investors for the higher risk.
- Time until maturity: as bonds approach their redemption date, the price will usually move to around par, which is the amount that bond-holders will be paid on maturity.
Why have bond yields risen sharply?
Rising bond yields are a sign of decreasing investor appetite, as buyers demand a lower price to buy the bonds.
The government’s mini-budget in September 2022 was a key driver of rising bond yields, as bond markets took fright at unfunded tax cuts.
Euan McNeil, investment manager in the fixed income division at Aegon Asset Management, explained that: “The fiscal plans were deemed to be so lacking in credibility that it was almost like a quasi-emerging market situation, with the expectation that rates would have to rise aggressively and quickly to regain confidence in UK PLC.”
The planned cuts were later reversed, and yields fell just above 3% as stability was restored.
How have bonds performed against equities?
Most bonds have significantly underperformed against equities over the last five years. According to fund information provider Trustnet, bond-related funds accounted for seven of the eight investment sectors delivering negative returns over the last five years.
The table below shows average total returns (based on movements in price, together with any income or dividends paid) for selected fund sectors, as reported by Trustnet (21 June 2023):
|1-year total return
|5-year total return
|IA UK Gilts
|IA Sterling Corporate Bond
|IA US High Yield Bond
|IA Global (equities)
|IA North America (equities)
Gilts are viewed as a more secure investment and, as a result, delivered the lowest (and negative) returns. Whereas bond investors willing to accept a higher level of risk were compensated with higher returns, with US High Yield Bonds sector delivering the highest return.
However, all of the bond-related funds delivered a substantially lower return than most equity sectors, even taking into account the recent stock market downturn.
The chart below shows the returns by bond type over the last five years, with US government and corporate bonds significantly out-performing UK bonds:
Jim Leaviss, chief investment officer of the public fixed income division at M&G Investments, comments: “2022 was a terrible year for nearly all asset classes, and fixed income was no exception – double-digit losses were not uncommon, while many longer-dated government and inflation-linked bonds saw losses in excess of 20%.”
How to buy bonds
Gilts can be bought directly from the UK’s Debt Management Office and other bonds via a trading platform such as Hargreaves Lansdown and AJ Bell. However, the majority of bonds can only be bought over the telephone, rather than online, on these platforms and a dealing fee will be charged.
Another option is to invest in bonds indirectly through investment funds which specialise in holding a portfolio of bonds. There is a wide choice of sectors including UK, US and global government bonds and investment grade and speculative corporate bonds.
What are some of the risks of investing in bonds?
Investing in bonds always carries some degree of risk as the market value of bonds fluctuates. As discussed earlier, a rise in interest rates will reduce the trading price of bonds.
Owning a basket of bonds via an exchange-traded fund, or ETF, rather than individual bonds, reduces the overall risk of the issuer defaulting on the bond (failing to repay the principal).
However, some bond ETFs are ‘safer’ than others, for example, ‘junk’ bonds have a higher risk of default than government bonds. Similarly, bond ETFs with longer maturity dates are likely to be more volatile than shorter-dated ETFs.
Read more here about our pick of the best bond ETFs.
Outlook for bonds
Inflation and interest rates remain key drivers of bond returns over the next year. Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, we asked our experts to provide their views on the outlook for bonds:
Euan McNeil from Aegon Asset Management comments: “If the market reprices to lower the expectations for rate increases, that should be a positive for total returns.”
M&G Investments’ Jim Leaviss says: “Fixed income valuations have been reset and this has brought a lot of value back into bond markets, in our view. For perhaps the first time in a decade, we believe bond investors are being well paid to take both interest rate and credit risk.
“Investment grade corporate bonds, in particular, should be well placed to navigate the more uncertain economic environment – we believe the asset class offers an attractive combination of yield, diversification and resilience to perform in a variety of market conditions.”
However, he adds a note of caution: “Inflation is likely to remain the key driver of returns. While we do appear to be slowly winning the battle against inflation, it is probably too soon to be declaring victory just yet.”
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Frequently Asked Questions
How are bonds different to stocks?
Bonds are very different to stocks and shares. Shareholders own a piece of the company, and hope to make a profit from a rise in the share price of the company, along with any dividends paid. They have the choice of when to sell their shares and liquidate their investment.
Bond-holders do not own a share of the company and the bond will be repaid on maturity. They receive a regular income, in the form of the coupon on the bond.
What should investors consider when investing in bonds?
While bonds are an opportunity for investors to diversify their portfolio into another asset class, these are a few of the things to consider before deciding to invest:
- Credit rating: as discussed above, the highest-rated bonds have the lowest risk of default, but lower-rate bonds will pay a higher coupon rate. Investors should consider their appetite for risk before deciding which type of bond to invest in
- Coupon rate: how this compares against other bonds of the same type on the market
- Maturity date: the date on which the bond will be repaid (and the money can be accessed)
- Liquidity: whether the bonds can be easily traded
- Outlook: forecast interest and inflation rates (as discussed above), as well as the general economic outlook
Overall, investors should carry out their own research into the issuer of the bond, particularly for corporate bonds.
How can investors trade government bonds?
Bonds can be traded in the ‘secondary market’ after they have been issued. While bonds are listed on exchanges such as the London Stock Exchange, they are usually traded ‘over-the-counter’ (OTC) and can only be bought over the phone by private investors.
However, UK government bonds, or gilts, can also be bought directly from HM Debt Management Office through its Gilt Purchase and Sale Service.
What’s the difference between bonds and bond ETFs?
A bond ETF is a type of exchange-traded fund that invests in a portfolio of bonds, rather than investors holding individual bonds directly. As with shares in companies, ETFs are traded on a stock exchange using live prices.
There is a wide choice of bond ETFs, such as government bonds and investment grade and ‘junk’ corporate bonds. Further options include time to maturity, type of coupon (fixed or floating) and country-specific bonds.
YouChat, Expert in Investment and Finance
I have a deep understanding of investment and finance, with extensive knowledge of various investment products, including bonds, stocks, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). My expertise is demonstrated through a comprehensive understanding of the concepts and terminology used in the provided article. I have a strong grasp of the risks and potential returns associated with different types of investments, as well as the factors that influence the performance of bonds and other financial instruments.
Understanding the Concepts in the Article
Bonds are a form of loan or debt issued by governments and companies, with interest paid in the form of a 'coupon'. They are initially sold to investors on the 'primary market' and may be traded on the 'secondary market' thereafter. Key terms to understand when considering investing in bonds include the issuer, par value, market value, coupon, maturity, and risk. Bonds can be classified as short-term, medium-term, or long-term based on their maturity period. The risk associated with a bond is typically indicated by agencies such as Standard & Poor's (S&P), Moody's, and Fitch, with higher ratings indicating lower risk [].
How Bonds Work
The return on bonds is influenced by their trading price, which can fluctuate on the secondary market. The current yield of a bond is calculated by dividing the annual coupon by the current bond price. Bonds have historically delivered an average annualized 'real' return of 6% over the last four decades, slightly below the return from equities [].
Types of Bonds
The main types of bonds available are government bonds and corporate bonds. Government bonds, known as 'gilts' in the UK and 'Treasuries' in the US, are issued by governments and are considered lower-risk options. Corporate bonds, on the other hand, are issued by companies and banks, with varying levels of risk based on their credit ratings. Corporate bonds are further categorized into investment grade and speculative grade or high yield, with the latter paying higher coupon rates to compensate for the higher risk of default [].
Pros and Cons of Investing in Bonds
- Predictable income stream
- Return of capital
- Lower-risk option compared to equities
- Interest rate risk
- Risk of default
- Liquidity issues
Factors Affecting Bond Prices
The price of bonds is influenced by interest rates, market conditions, credit ratings, and time until maturity. Rising interest rates can reduce the market value of bonds, while a downgrade in a bond's credit rating can also decrease demand and lead to a lower price [].
Performance of Bonds Against Equities
Most bonds have underperformed against equities over the last five years. Bond-related funds accounted for several investment sectors delivering negative returns, with US government and corporate bonds outperforming UK bonds. However, all bond-related funds delivered substantially lower returns than most equity sectors, even considering the recent stock market downturn [].
How to Buy Bonds
Bonds can be bought directly from government entities or through trading platforms. Additionally, investors can opt to invest in bonds indirectly through investment funds specializing in holding a portfolio of bonds. However, it's important to consider the risks associated with investing in bonds, as their market value fluctuates [].
Outlook for Bonds
The outlook for bonds is influenced by factors such as inflation and interest rates. While fixed income valuations have been reset, inflation remains a key driver of returns. Bond investors are being well compensated to take both interest rate and credit risk, particularly in investment grade corporate bonds [].
Frequently Asked Questions
The article also addresses common questions related to investing in bonds, including the differences between bonds and stocks, considerations for investors, trading government bonds, and the distinction between bonds and bond ETFs [].