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Wad of bills and "BONDS" in block lettersBonds can help to balance out risk in a portfolio while also generating income in the form of interest from regular coupon payments. When a bond is issued it’s assigned a fixed par value and a set maturity date. A bond’s value can change, however, once it begins trading on the open market. Premium bonds trade above par value while discount bonds trade below it. Both can offer opportunities for investors but it’s important to understand how premium and discount bonds work. A financial advisor can help you navigate all the opportunities available for fixed-income investing.

How Bond Prices Are Set

A bond is a loan that’s made by the issuer. When you purchase bonds, you’re allowing the issuer to use your money. In return, the issuer pays it back to you with interest. For example, municipal bonds are issued by local governments to raise money for things like road maintenance and public works. Corporate bonds are issued by companies to raise capital that can be used to fund expansion projects.

When a bond is issued, it’s at a fixed par value. A bond trades at par if its current price is equal to the face value at which it was issued. But once a bond hits the open market and is available to trade, this price can – and very often does – change. Bond pricing can be influenced by different factors, including supply and demand, the bond issuer’s credit rating and the bond’s maturity term.

Bond pricing and bond yields are correlated. For example, when a bond’s price falls on the open market, its yield rises. Keep in mind, too, that a bond with a longer maturity term can also be riskier because it’s more susceptible to fluctuating interest rates than a short-term bond. In addition, credit quality can help to mitigate default risk. The better a bond issuer’s credit is, the less likely the issuer is to skip out on repayment of the bond. Understanding these things can help with understanding how premium and discount bonds work.

What Are Premium Bonds?

When a new bond is issued, it’s sold on the primary market. Existing bonds, on the other hand, are sold on the secondary market. A premium bond is a bond that trades on the secondary market above its original par value.

Bonds trade at a premium when the coupon or interest rate offered is higher than the interest rate that’s being offered for new bonds. A simple way to tell whether a bond is trading at a premium is to check its price. If what you have to pay to purchase a bond is above its face value then it’s a premium bond.

During periods when interest rates are falling, whether because of the market or the Federal Reserve, the volume of premium bonds on the secondary market can increase. That’s because of the relationship between interest rates and bond prices. When rates decrease, bond prices go up and vice versa. Investors may be attracted to older bonds that are generating higher yields in a declining interest rate environment versus new-issue bonds. As demand for these older bonds rises, more of them can trade at a premium.

The gap between a bond’s original par value and its premium value can shift as the bond gets closer to its maturity date. Generally, the closer a bond is to maturity the lower the premium tends to be. It can eventually diminish to zero as the bond’s price once again becomes equivalent to its par value.

What Are Discount Bonds?

Computer screen with bond information on it

The key difference between premium and discount bonds comes down to trading price. When bonds are traded on the secondary market for less than their original par value, they’re labeled as discount bonds. This means the coupon rate for the bond has fallen below wherever market rates are currently. Discount bonds can be attractive to investors who want to purchase bonds at a lower price. The discount price can help to offset lower yields associated with the bond. The deeper the discount, the higher the potential for gains from these bonds. And investors still benefit from regular interest payments.

There are, however, some unique risks associated with discount bonds. For instance, a bond that’s been deeply discounted could carry higher credit risk. If the issuer is struggling financially, it’s possible that a steep discount could hint at the possibility of default. A discount bond’s default risk also increases with longer maturities.

Premium vs. Discount Bonds: Which Is Better?

Premium and discount bonds can both be used to diversify a portfolio. Whether it makes sense to choose one over the other can depend on your investment goals and risk tolerance. With premium bonds, you’re getting the benefit of potentially earning a higher interest rate than the overall market. These bonds tend to have lower default risk as they’re often issued by government entities or established companies that strong credit ratings.

You can, however, run the risk of paying too much for a premium bond if market interest rates rise. This can result in a premium bond being overvalued. With discount bonds, you have to keep in mind that buying a bond below par value could also increase risk but in a different way. This is why it’s important to consider both the coupon rate of a discount bond and the credit quality of the issuer.

Also, keep in mind that your potential for returns from premium bonds can change if they become callable. This means that the issuer can choose to allow the bond to be redeemed before the maturity date. Premium bonds may become callable if interest rates rise because it may not make sense financially for the issuer to continue paying investors above-market rates.

How to Invest in Premium and Discount Bonds

Bonds can help to balance out a portfolio that also includes stocks, real estate and other investments. When comparing bonds, whether premium or discount, consider things like:

  • Maturity
  • Yield
  • Coupon rate
  • Bond ratings

When deciding whether to invest in bonds, it’s also important to look at the bigger picture to determine whether it’s a good fit for your investment strategy. Keeping the interest rate environment in focus can also help you to gauge which way bond prices are likely to move, at least in the near term.

When you’re ready to start investing in bonds, you can do so through an online brokerage account. You can also use a brokerage account to trade stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and other securities. When comparing brokerage options, weigh the range of investments offered as well as the fees you’ll pay to trade.

The Bottom Line

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The biggest difference between premium and discount bonds centers on their trading price, relative to their par value. Premium bonds trade above par value while discount bonds trade below it. Discount bonds can be riskier but the lower the price, the higher the potential for gains. Premium bonds can deliver higher returns with less risk, but they can be problematic if they become callable.

Tips for Investing

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to develop an investing strategy around premium and discount bonds. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get personalized recommendations for advisors near you. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Inflation can wreak havoc on bonds. Use this free inflation calculator to determine the buying power of a U.S. dollar over time.
  • Investing in bond funds or bond ETFs can help to dial down some of the risks associated with individual bonds. When you own a bond fund or ETF, you own a collection of bonds in one place. This helps to spread out risk since you’re gaining exposure to different types of bonds at varying maturities. If you want to go as low-cost as possible, consider bond ETFs that follow an indexing strategy as these tend to have the lowest turnover.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Aksana Kavaleuskaya, ©iStock.com/G0d4ather, ©iStock.com/Prostock-Studio

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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