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How to Buy Corporate Bonds

Both public and private corporations issue corporate bonds, which are a type of fixed income security. Corporations place these investments on the open market to help fund projects and other major financial undertakings. Investors can purchase corporate bonds on either the primary or secondary markets, and they offer predictable payouts and strong liquidity. So if these reliable, low-risk investments interest you, check out our guide below.

How to Buy Corporate Bonds

There are two main classes of corporate bonds: new issue and secondary market/over-the-counter (OTC). New issue corporate bonds are freshly created and available through the primary market for a fixed initial offering price. By contrast, the secondary market/OTC options consist of the leftovers of the primary market.

The primary market is exclusive and almost always calls for some sort of established relationship with a financial institution. This high-level nature makes new issue bonds difficult to reach for anyone but financially-privileged investors. Those who don’t match this description should look into a brokerage firm when they want to purchase corporate bonds, as they typically only dabble in secondary market/OTC offerings. This is ideal for the average investor, but their high-end counterparts should focus on entering the primary market.

Brokerage accounts represent some of the best investment autonomy, which can make them extremely attractive. Even if corporate bonds are in your crosshairs, you can also buy stocks, mutual funds and more through a broker. Here are a few firms you may want to consider:

Brokerage Comparison
Brokerage Firm Trading Fees Minimum Best For
TD Ameritrade
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Per bond transaction fee: $1 $0 – Online traders
– Investment veterans and newbies alike
Merrill Edge
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Online corporate bonds: $1 $0 – Bank of America account holders
– Customer support users
E*TRADE
Read Review
Per bond trade commission: $1 $500 – Active and experienced traders

Direct purchases of corporate bonds are not the only way to invest in them. In fact, there are many exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds that center around these types of bonds. The benefit of buying into a corporate bond mutual fund or ETF is that they are inherently diversified. In other words, they will automatically spread your money throughout the market at a fraction of the cost that it would require to do so individually.

Financial advisor firms usually utilize their own proprietary investment strategies when working with clients. Because of this, you’ll likely come across a firm that includes corporate bonds in their portfolios. So if you have reservations about purchasing these bonds by yourself, this could be a worthwhile alternative.

Everything comes with its downsides, though, and financial advisors are no different. Because advisory services customarily include full professional management, their costs are often higher than that of brokers. This could be worthwhile, though, as most firms not only will aid you in formulating a collection of investments, but they’ll also create a complete financial plan.

Types of Corporate Bonds

Corporations do not directly offer corporate bonds. On the other hand, they work with investment bankers and other financial institutions to get their bonds on either the primary or secondary markets. Although there are many subcategories of corporate bonds, here are some of the most common:

Fixed-Rate

Fixed-rate corporate bonds provide consistent interest returns on a monthly, quarterly, bi-annual or annual basis. Which payout schedule your investment receives depends on the bond you buy, though the interest rate never changes. The size of these payments is dictated by a set percentage of your bond’s par value, which is what its worth will be at the time of ultimate maturity. More specifically, a $1,000 corporate bond with a 7% fixed rate would pay $70 a year.

Variable-Rate

In opposition to fixed-rate bonds, variable-rate corporate bonds shift their interest rates around once every year. These do not abide by an arbitrary percentage, but rather they’re aligned with a certain interest rate benchmark. This could end up being any number of benchmarks, such as the U.S. prime rate or the London Inter-bank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Although these have slightly less reliability than fixed-rate bonds, they have the potential for better return upside.

Zero-Coupon

Whereas most corporate bonds include regular interest payments, zero-coupon bonds pay out solely on their final maturity date. In turn, you can usually buy them at a cheaper price. While a discount might seem desirable, the long-term style of zero-coupon corporate bonds leave them susceptible to volatility.

Benefits and Risks of Corporate Bonds

How to Buy Corporate Bonds

Fixed-income securities are famous for their ability to maintain stable returns, albeit low ones. Corporate bonds, however, offer one of the best return prospects of any fixed-income option. In a way, they’re sort of similar to investing in a company’s stock. But unlike equities, corporations must pay back the principal and interest of their bonds before that of its stock shares. This priority affords corporate bonds a certain sense of safety, even with their potentially impressive returns.

Despite what’s beneficial about corporate bonds, there are plenty of risky characteristics to watch for. Because corporations need to make money to pay back the bonds they issue, be aware that they may default on their payments under certain circumstances. This could be due to changing factors within the economy, federal and state regulations, the overall market and more.

Interest rates and corporate bonds have an inverse relationship. As interest rates rise, the prices of preexisting bonds will drop. If rates fall, though, bond prices are likely to rise, causing investors to sell their holdings. Should the second situation occur, the bond’s issuer may choose to call. This means the corporation will pay off the bond early in order to save money, resulting in possible financial losses for investors.

Comparing Corporate Bonds to Other Investments

Stocks often carry a large amount of risk, as their value is based on the financial performance of a company. Investors are rewarded for stomaching this, though, as the possible earnings of equities are unparalleled. Corporate bonds capture this on a much smaller scale, although their typical risk is significantly lower. If you can handle the stress of high-risk investing in the hopes of elevated returns, stocks are your best bet. But for anyone that prefers low-cost, secure returns, corporate bonds are worth looking into.

Bonds come in many variations, and municipal bonds, or munis, are one of the most prominent. State, county, city and other government institutions issue munis to the public to fund work for infrastructure improvements and other projects. When it comes to interest yield, corporate bonds have the superior returns. However, taxes play a major part in this comparison, as munis are exempt from federal income taxes and sometimes even state and local taxes. Corporate bonds do not have this perk, meaning that taxes could nix their superior returns.

Fixed-income securities boast plenty of reliability, but this is especially true of municipal bonds. As you might expect from a government-backed security, the credit ratings for munis are great and they rarely end in defaults. Businesses are much riskier ventures than government entities, so corporate bonds simply do not have the same features. To ensure that you choose the right type of bond for you, weigh the above considerations carefully.

Corporate Bonds: The Bottom Line

Aside from the occasional security, investment types are generally not inherently “bad.” Instead, an investment should be viewed as a better fit for some people’s needs over others. For example, fixed-income securities are best for risk-averse investors who prefer on-time interest payments over the fluctuating returns of equities. Generally speaking, corporate bonds fall right in line with this description. However, because they can be tough to attain for lower-level investors, corporate bonds are not as readily available as other fixed-income investments.

Tips to Improve Your Investment Portfolio

How to Buy Corporate Bonds

  • Devising a specific asset allocation is an integral part of planning your investment portfolio. This involves dividing your money across different investment types so that the success of your portfolio is not overly attached to one area of the market. Should you have trouble implementing this, SmartAsset’s asset allocation calculator can help simplify things.
  • A relationship with a financial advisor can do wonders for your investment portfolio. These professionals work in the investment sphere day in, day out and, as a result, have ample experience selecting stocks, bonds and other investment types. The SmartAsset financial advisor matching tool will quickly pair you with as many as three local advisors who can to handle your needs.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/TimArbaev, ©iStock.com/triloks, ©iStock.com/c-George

Chris Thompson, CEPF® Chris Thompson is a retirement, savings, mortgage and credit card expert at SmartAsset. He has reviewed hundreds of credit cards and loves helping people find the one that best matches their financial needs. Chris is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He graduated from Montclair State University where he received the Journalism Achievement Award. Chris’ articles have been featured in places like Yahoo Finance, MSN and Bleacher Report. He lives in New Jersey and is a Mets, Jets and Nets fan.
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