What are bonds?

At their most basic level, bonds are a way for one entity to raise money by borrowing from another. For example, governments and corporations issue bonds to raise money from investors when they need new sources of capital to fund their activities.
8 MIN.

Answering the question ‘Why invest in stocks?’ may be second nature for most people, but it’s just as important to feel comfortable talking about bonds. Before tackling the complexities of this large and diverse market, this topic starts by covering the basics.

What is a bond?

At their most basic level, bonds are a way for one entity to raise money by borrowing from another. For example, governments and corporations issue bonds to raise money from investors when they need new sources of capital to fund their activities.

When investors purchase a government bond, they are effectively lending the government money. When they buy a corporate bond, they are lending a company money.

Like a loan, a bond pays a periodic interest payment known as a coupon to the bondholder. At the end of the bond's life – called maturity – the principal is paid back to the investor.

(For more detail on how bonds can deliver returns to investors, please visit Series 1: Topic 2 – How do bonds generate a return?)

Let's look at an example

A company wants to build a new manufacturing plant that will cost $1 million. To raise the money needed, company executives decide to issue a corporate bond. Each bond will be issued at $1,000 – this is known as the face value of the bond.

The company – or bond issuer –offers a coupon of 5% per year to be paid quarterly. The bonds will mature after five years, at which time the company will repay the $1,000 face value to each bondholder.

View our case study focusing on volatility in the bond market and the role of bonds in a growth portfolio. View case study

Are Bonds and Fixed Income the Same?

Basically, yes. The term fixed income is often used interchangeably with the term bonds. This is because bonds are the most commonly known type of fixed income security.

Technically, “fixed income” covers any security where the issuer is obligated to pay the lender fixed payments at fixed times. What can be confusing for investors is that fixed income does not always mean the bond pays a fixed dollar amount as bonds can have a fixed rate or floating rate. The word 'fixed' in fixed income refers to the obligation to make payments at set times.

A Short History of Bonds

Prior to the 1970s, the bond market was primarily a place for governments and large companies to borrow money. The main investors in these bonds were insurance companies, pension funds and individual investors.

The modern bond market began to evolve in the 1970s. Supply increased and investors learned there was money to be made buying and selling bonds in the secondary market.

As investor interest grew (and faster computers made bond mathematics easier), so did the appetite to create innovative ways for borrowers to tap into the bond market for funding and for bond investors to tailor their risk/return potential. The result: Today’s bond market consists of a diverse range of issuers and bond types.

Historically, the United States has had the deepest bond market, but in more recent years, other markets have developed. There is now a large and healthy global market valued at approximately $100 trillion.

The different types of bonds

Broadly speaking, government bonds and corporate bonds remain the largest sectors of the market. The chart below provides an overview of the key categories of bonds through a potential risk/return lens.

Risk vs Return chart

In developed market economies, government bonds are generally considered low- risk investments. However, this is not true for all markets, and investors need to be aware that some government bonds, for example those issued in emerging markets, may carry higher levels of risk. On the flipside, such bonds can provide investors with access to investments offering different income and growth profiles.

Corporate bonds fall into two broad categories – investment grade and speculative grade (also known as high yield or junk bonds). Speculative grade bonds are issued by companies perceived to have lower credit quality and higher default risk than more highly rated or investment grade companies. Ratings can be downgraded if the credit quality of the issuer deteriorates. Conversely, they can be upgraded if fundamentals improve.

Bond Types

The table below examines some of the different types of bonds in more detail:

Types and Overview

Government bonds

Sovereign bonds issued and generally backed by a central government. Examples include:

  • Treasury Bonds
  • UK Gilts
  • U.S. Treasuries
  • GoCs (Government of Canada Bonds)
  • German Bunds
  • JGBs (Japanese Government Bonds)

Several governments also issue sovereign bonds that are linked to inflation known as inflation-linked bonds, such as TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) in the United States.

Government agency bonds

Government agencies and quasi government agencies issue bonds to fund their projects and programs. Some agency bonds are guaranteed by the central government while others are not. Supranational organizations like the World Bank and European Investment Bank also borrow in the bond market to finance public projects and other development.

Local government bonds

Local governments – whether territories, states or cities – issue bonds to fund new developments as well as general operations. In the United States, these bonds are known as municipal bonds. The market for local government bonds is well established in the United States and has grown significantly in Europe in recent years.

Emerging market bonds

Sovereign and corporate bonds issued by developing countries are also known as emerging market (EM) bonds. Since the 1990s, the EM bond market has developed and matured to include a wide variety of government and corporate bonds. They are issued in major external currencies including the U.S. dollar and the euro, as well as local currencies (often referred to as emerging market local bonds).

Mortgage-backed securities

Mortgage-backed securities are bonds that are created through the securitization of the mortgage payments of property owners. The loan repayments from these mortgages are bundled together into a security that pays an interest rate similar to the mortgage rate being paid by the property owner.

Asset-backed securities

These bonds are created from car payments, credit card payments and other loans. As with mortgage-backed securities, similar loans are bundled together and packaged as a security that pays interest to investors. Special entities are created to administer asset-backed securities, allowing credit card companies and other lenders to move loans off their balance sheets. Asset-backed securities are usually offered in tranches, meaning the loans are bundled together into higher-quality and lower-quality classes of securities.

Pfandbriefe and covered bonds

German securities secured by mortgages are known as Pfandbriefe. The key difference between Pfandbriefe and mortgage-backed or asset-backed securities is that the banks keep the loans on their balance sheets. Because of this feature, Pfandbriefe are sometimes classified as corporate bonds. Other countries in Europe are increasingly issuing Pfandbriefe-like securities known as covered bonds.

Next Topic

How do bonds generate a return?