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What Is a Bond?

You may have heard that a balanced investing portfolio includes both stocks and bonds, with the ratio between the two varying depending on your age and risk tolerance. But what exactly are bonds, and what they can do for you? We’re here to answer that question with our SmartAsset guide to the ins and out of bonds and bond markets. Get comfy.

How Do Bonds Work?

When you buy a bond you’re lending money to the entity that issued the bond, whether that’s a company or a government. Bondholders are lenders, and as such they’re entitled to collect interest. When the bond matures, bondholders get back the money they paid for the bond. This is known as the principal or par value of the bond.

When you’re shopping for bonds, you’ll be able to see each bond’s price, time to maturity and coupon rate. The coupon rate is the money you’ll receive, expressed as a percentage of the principal that you pay to buy the bond. Coupon rates for bonds hover around the market interest rate.

The Bond Market

The bond market is sensitive to fluctuations in the interest rate. What do we mean by “the” interest rate? There are lots of different interest rates, for things like home mortgages and credit cards, but when someone refers to “the interest rate” or “interest rates” in a general way, they’re referring to the interest rate set by the Federal Reserve. This is also known as the federal funds rate.

The Fed uses its power to buy and sell Treasury Bonds to affect interest rates. When the Fed sells Treasury Bonds, it’s taking money that would otherwise circulate in the economy. Cash becomes more scarce, which makes borrowing money relatively more expensive and therefore raises interest rates. Interest rates are the cost of borrowing money. The interest rate that the Fed decides on as a target has a knock-on effect on other interest rates, including your mortgage rate and the rates on bonds.

When the general interest rate goes up, the price of existing bonds falls. In other words, interest rates and bond prices have an inverse relationship. Let us explain: We already mentioned that interest rates on bonds tend to mirror “the interest rate.” If interest rates rise, new bonds that are issued will have a higher interest rate to reflect this change. If you go to sell a bond that has the old, lower interest rates, you’ll have to lower its price to get anyone to buy it. That’s because the opportunity cost of holding your old, lower-coupon-rate bond has risen. Potential buyers will think, “Why pay $1,000 for a bond paying 4% when I could pay $1,000 for a bond paying 5%?”

Risks of Bonds

The relationship described above means that bondholders are subject to interest rate risk, the risk that changes in the interest rate will make the bonds they hold less valuable, leaving them with assets they’d have to sell for less than they paid for them. Bonds come in short-term and long-term forms. The longer the term of your bond, the more uncertainty there is about what interest rates will do during the time you hold the bond. Of course, changes in the price of your bond are only a problem if you sell before maturity. If you hold onto your bonds, you’ll get your principal back – unless the issuer becomes unable to pay.

That brings us to another risk that comes with buying bonds – namely, the risk that the company or government issuing the bond will default, leaving bondholders to scavenge what’s left of the company’s assets. This is called credit risk. Bonds are rated by rating agencies that give issuers a grade based on their likelihood of default. As you might expect, “junk bonds” are bonds that are judged to have a relatively high risk of default.

Finally, bonds are subject to inflation risk. If you buy a bond that pays 2% and inflation is at 2.4%, you’re essentially losing money by holding that bond. People often look to bonds as a safe investment, but in a low-interest rate environment, the interest that bonds pay may not top inflation rates. Sure, you’re very unlikely to lose your principal if you invest in a safe bond like a Treasury bond, but your money might not be growing.

How to Buy Bonds

You can buy Treasury bonds directly from the US Treasury online. To buy other types of bonds, including municipal bonds and corporate bonds, you’ll go through a brokerage. This could be an online-only brokerage that charges a fee per trade, a brokerage firm that charges low fees as a percentage of your assets or a full-service brokerage that charges higher fees but offers more in the way of financial advice.

You can also buy bond mutual funds, bond ETFs and bond index funds. Bond funds will hold various bonds in pursuit of higher returns and diversification. Bond ETFs actually trade on the market and offer different tax advantages to bond mutual funds. Bond index funds charge lower fees because they’re passively managed as opposed to actively managed. They aim to mirror or “index” the overall bond market.

There are also mortgage bonds, backed by real estate mortgages. These are the mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) that became notorious during the financial crisis. Many mortgage bonds are dependable investments, but others are based on mortgages with a high risk of default. In other words, choose wisely.

Bottom Line

A bond with a high rating offers dependability and certainty. But in the investing world, lower risk tends to mean lower return. That’s why dependable ol’ bonds don’t offer the kinds of returns you’ll get if you invest in stock. The lower volatility of bonds means that most investors choose to balance their portfolio with a mix of bonds and stocks.

The closer you are to retirement, the less time you have to weather ups and downs in the stock market. That may mean you want to decrease your equity exposure and increase the share of your portfolio that’s in bonds as you approach retirement. You want the money that forms the basis of your retirement income to stay constant or grow, not get wiped out in the next downturn.

If you have some questions about investing or need help getting ready for retirement, you might consider working with a financial advisor. A financial advisor can help you create a balanced portfolio with a blend of bonds and other investment types. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you find an advisor who suits your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your financial situation and goals. Then the program will pair you with up to three advisors in your area based on your answers. You can then read the advisors’ profiles and interview them to choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/KingJC

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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