Reasons for Trading Bonds

In a very broad sense, a bond is a security (a document) that gives its owner the right to a fixed, predetermined payment, at a future, predetermined date, called maturity. The amount of money that a bond will pay in the future is called nominal value, face value, par value, or principal.

There are two sides to a bond contract: the party that promises to pay the nominal value, or the debtor, and the party that will get paid, or the creditor. We say that the debtor is a counterparty to the creditor in the bond contract, and vice versa.

The debtor issues a bond in exchange for an agreed-upon amount called the bond price paid by the creditor. For example, the creditor may have to pay $95.00 today for a bond that pays $100.00 a year from today. The creditor can later sell the bond to another person who becomes the new creditor.

The difference between the bond price the creditor pays to the debtor and the nominal value is called interest. The interest as a percentage of the total value is called interest rate. Typically, but not always, a bond with longer maturity pays a higher interest rate.

A bond is characterized by its interest and its maturity. In principle, bonds represent the paradigm of risk-free securities, in the sense that there is a guaranteed payoff at maturity, known in advance. The lack of risk is the result of the certainty about that amount. In fact, in the models that we will examine in later chapters, we will always call bonds risk-free securities.

The money would fall into this broad definition of a bond. Money can be interpreted as a bond with zero interest rate and zero (immediate) maturity. The counterparty to the individual who has money is the government, guaranteeing the general acceptability of money as a
payment instrument.

A checking account is similar to money (although the counterparty is a bank). At the other extreme of the length of maturity, we have bonds issued by the government that expire in 30 years. Private corporations have issued bonds with longer maturities.

Types of Bonds

Depending on their maturity, bonds are classified into short-term bonds or bonds of maturity no greater than one year, and long-term bonds, when their maturity exceeds one year. There are bonds that involve only an initial payment (the initial price) and a final payment (the nominal value).

They are called pure discount bonds, since the initial price is equal to the discounted nominal value. Very often, however (especially with long-term bonds), the debtor will make periodic payments to the creditor during the life of the bond. These payments are usually a predetermined percentage of the nominal value of the bond and are called coupons. At maturity, the debtor will pay the last coupon and the nominal value.

In this case, the nominal value part is called principal. The corresponding bonds are called coupon bonds. Actually, a coupon bond is equivalent to a collection, or a basket, of pure discount bonds with nominal values equal to the coupons. Pure discount bonds are also called zero-coupon bonds, because they pay no coupons.

If the price at which the bond is sold is exactly the same as the nominal value, we say that the bond sells at par. If the price of the bond is different from the nominal value, we say that the bond sells above par if the price is higher than the nominal value, or below par if it is lower. Coupon bonds can sell at, above, or below par. Pure discount bonds always sell below par because the today’s value of one dollar paid at a future maturity date is less than one dollar.

For example, if Taf today lends $1,000 to his Reliable City Government for a ten-year period by buying a bond from the city, he should get more than $1,000 after ten years. In other words, a bond’s interest rate is always positive.

Reasons for Trading Bonds

If a person has some purchasing power that she would prefer to delay, she could buy a bond. There are many reasons why someone might want to delay expending. As an example, our hard worker Taf may want to save for retirement. One way of doing so would be to buy bonds with a long maturity in order to save enough money to be able to retire in the future.

In fact, if Taf knew the exact date of retirement and the exact amount of money necessary to live on retirement, he could choose a bond whose maturity matches the date of retirement and whose nominal value matches the required amount, and thereby save money without risk.

He could also invest in bonds with shorter maturities and reinvest the proceeds when the bonds expire. But such a strategy will generally pay a lower interest rate, and therefore, the amount of money that will have to be invested for a given retirement target will be higher than if it were invested in the long-term bond.

Another example of the need to delay spending in the case of an insurance company, collecting premiums from its customers. In exchange, the insurance company will compensate the customer in case of a fire or a car accident. If the insurance company could predict how much and when it will need capital for compensation, it could use the premiums to buy
bonds with a given maturity and nominal value.

In fact, based on their experience and information about their customers, insurance companies can make good estimates of the amounts that will be required for compensation. Bonds provide a risk-free way to invest the premiums.

There are also many reasons why someone might want to advance consumption. Individual consumers will generally do so by borrowing money from banks, through house and car loans or credit card purchases. Corporations borrow regularly as a way of financing their business: when a business opportunity comes up, they will issue bonds to finance it with the hope that the profits of the opportunity will be higher than the interest rate they will have to pay for the bonds.

The bonds issued by a corporation for financing purposes are called debt. The owner of bonds, the creditor, is called the bondholder. The government also issues bonds to finance public expenses when collected tax payments are not enough to pay for them.

Risk of Trading Bonds

Even though we call bonds risk-free securities, there are several reasons why bonds might actually involve risk. First of all, it is possible that the debtor might fail to meet the payment obligation embedded in the bond. This risk is typical of bonds issued by corporations.

There is a chance that the corporation that issues the bond will not be able to generate enough income to meet the interest rate. If the debtor does not meet the promise, we say that the debtor has defaulted. This type of risk is called credit risk or default risk.

The bonds issued by the U.S. government are considered to be free of risk of default, since the government will always be able to print more money and, therefore, is extremely unlikely to default.

The second source of risk comes from the fact that, even if the amount to be paid in the future is fixed, it is in general impossible to predict the amount of goods which that sum will be able to buy. The future prices of goods are uncertain, and a given amount of money will be relatively more or less valuable depending on the level of the prices.

This risk is called inflation risk. Inflation is the process by which prices tend to increase. When Taf saves for retirement by buying bonds, he can probably estimate the amount of goods and services that will be required during retirement.

However, the price of those goods will be very difficult to estimate. In practice, there are bonds that guarantee a payment that depends on the inflation level. These bonds are called real bonds or inflation-indexed bonds. Because of the high risk for the debtor, these bonds are not common.

A final source of risk that we mention here arises when the creditor needs money before maturity and tries to sell the bond. Apart from the risk of default, the creditor knows with certainty that the nominal value will be paid at maturity.

However, there is no price guarantee before maturity. The creditor can in general sell the bond, but the price that the bond will reach before maturity depends on factors that cannot be predicted. Consider, for example, the case of the insurance company. Suppose that the contingency the insurance company has to compensate takes place before the expected date.

In that case, the insurance company will have to hurry to sell the bonds, and the price it receives for them might be lower than the amount needed for the compensation. The risk of having to sell at a given time at low prices is called liquidity risk.

In fact, there are two reasons why someone who sells a bond might experience a loss. First, it might be that no one is interested in that bond at the time. A bond issued for a small corporation that is not well known might not be of interest to many people, and as a result, the seller might be forced to take a big price cut in the bond.

This is an example of a liquidity problem. Additionally, the price of the bond will depend on market factors and, more explicitly, on the level of interest rates, the term structure, which we will discuss in later chapters. However, it is difficult in practice to distinguish between the liquidity risk and the risk of market factors, because they might be related.

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