What are bonds?

Learn how companies and governments use bonds to finance new projects.

A magnifying glass on wooden blocks spelling out bonds.

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Just about all of us will need to borrow money from time to time, whether buying something as big as a house or as small as a cup of coffee.

Companies and governments are no exception. When these organisations want to finance new projects, they often need to borrow money. They can do this by issuing bonds for money markets and investors to buy, effectively providing the capital for the loan.

Put simply, bonds are a way for organisations to borrow money by breaking a loan down into smaller parts or ‘bonds’ and making them widely accessible to lenders of all sizes.

How do they work?

Bonds work in much the same way as a typical loan.

Let’s say a mining company wants to raise money to finance a significant new project. To secure the funding, the company might decide to issue bonds to investors. In exchange for their investment, the company will promise to repay them, plus interest, within a specified time frame.

For example, you might decide to buy a 10-year, $10,000 bond paying 3% interest. In exchange, the mining company will promise to make periodic interest payments on the $10,000 (often called coupon payments) and return the total principal amount to you in 10 years.

Think of it like the company writing you an IOU.

How to make money from bonds

There are two ways you can make money from bonds:

The first is to simply hold onto the bonds until they mature and kick back and collect the coupon payments. By the time the bond matures, you will have received your initial investment back, and your profit will be whatever interest you gained during the loan period. Bond interest is most commonly paid semi-annually, but it can also be paid on a quarterly or annual basis.

The second way you can profit from bonds is to sell them for a higher price than you initially paid.

Let’s say you purchased that 10-year, $10,000 bond from the mining company. In a year, the price of that bond may have increased to $11,000. You can sell that bond and pocket the $1,000 profit if you wish.

What affects the price?

There are two main reasons why a bond’s price might increase (or decrease).

Interest rates: If the prevailing interest rate on newly-issued bonds is below the interest rate paid on existing bonds, the existing bonds will go up.

So, using our example with the mining company, if they started issuing 10-year, $10,000 bonds paying just 2% interest, that would suddenly make your bonds, which pay 3% interest, relatively more valuable to own. Of course, the opposite would also be true if the company started issuing bonds paying a higher rate of interest, like 4%

Credit rating: The second reason a bond’s price might increase is if the issuing company’s credit rating improves. This is particularly true if the company had a poor credit rating to begin with. It means it is now more likely to be able to make the interest payments on the bond.

This makes it a less risky investment and increases its price. On the other hand, if the company’s credit rating declines, that makes its bonds riskier to own and decreases their price. Skilled bond traders will attempt to profit from these price fluctuations by actively buying and selling bonds on the bond markets.

Investing in a joint approach

Individual bonds can be costly and are often beyond the reach of the typical retail investor. This is where bond funds come in. These funds pool together contributions from individual investors and use the money raised to purchase a diversified portfolio of bonds. This is an excellent option if you want broad exposure to the bond market but don’t have much money available to invest.

Many exchange-traded funds (ETFs) currently listed on the ASX offer exposure to domestic and international bond markets. And because they trade on the ASX, you can buy and sell them just like ordinary shares.

What types of bonds are there?

In Australia, there are two types of bonds:

Corporate bonds: These are bonds issued by companies. They tend to offer higher interest rates, but there is more default risk with small, growing companies than with large, blue-chip companies and government entities

Australian Government bonds: These are bonds issued by the federal government. Due to the lack of default risk, they are considered safer investments than corporate bonds and offer lower interest rates.

How to buy bonds

There are several options for investing in bonds in Australia.

To purchase bonds wholesale, you will typically need to engage a broker to execute your trades for you (in exchange for a fee). This is because most bonds are not publicly traded and are instead sold ‘over the counter’. Purchasing bonds wholesale can often require a large minimum investment (think upwards of $500,000).

If you don’t have a spare “half-a-mil” tucked under your mattress, another option is to purchase exchange-traded Australian Government bonds. These trade on the ASX and operate similarly to passive ETFs. But rather than track an index, their returns aim to mirror a specific bond.

For example, you could gain exposure to 3% interest-paying Australian Government bonds maturing in March 2047 by purchasing units in the Australian Government Treasury Bond GVM6WU (ASX: GSBE47).

There is also a range of exchange-traded corporate bonds (XTBs) available for S&P/ASX 200 Index (ASX: XJO) companies like Westpac Banking Corp (ASX: WBC) and Telstra Corporation Ltd (ASX: TLS). XTBs are still relatively new products, having launched in Australia in 2015, so the range of bonds available to invest in is still limited.

Benefits of investing in bonds

Less volatility: Bond prices tend to fluctuate much less than share prices, making them potentially safer investments.

Income: The coupon payments on bonds can provide a predictable and stable revenue stream

Diversification Perhaps the most significant benefit of investing in bonds is the diversification they can bring to your portfolio. Although shares have outperformed bonds over the long term, holding a portion of your portfolio in bonds can help reduce financial risk.

And the drawbacks

Long time horizon: Most bonds won’t mature for five, 10, or even 20-plus years, meaning that you may have to lock your money away for an extended period of time

Interest rate risk: Because bonds typically have such long maturities, there is always the risk that interest rates will increase before your bond matures. Not only will that decrease the value of your bond – as we illustrated previously – but it also means that if you continue to hold your bond, you may miss out on earning a higher interest rate elsewhere

Issuer default: While unlikely, there is still the real possibility that the bond issuer may default and be unable to meet their repayment obligations. This could potentially put both your interest payments and the return of your principal at risk

Lack of transparency: Bond markets tend to be more opaque, particularly to retail investors, than equities markets. Because you typically need to engage a third party, like a broker, to execute trades on your behalf, you have less certainty that the price you pay or receive for your bonds is fair

Smaller returns: Bonds also tend to offer a substantially lower return on investment than shares and other riskier financial assets.

Are bonds a good investment?

The only person who can truly answer that question is you. But here are some helpful scenarios for you to consider as you decide:

  • If you are risk-averse and want to lessen the likelihood of losing money, bonds might be a suitable investment for you. Because bond prices tend to be reasonably stable, they usually offer a much safer store of value than shares. However, it is essential to keep in mind that your potential return is also significantly lower with bonds.
  • If you are already heavily invested in shares, purchasing bonds can help to diversify your portfolio and protect you against unwanted market volatility.
  • If you are entering retirement or already retired, you may prefer a more stable income stream to help support your lifestyle. This can be achieved by rebalancing your portfolio towards bonds rather than shares.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

Motley Fool contributor Rhys Brock has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has positions in and has recommended Telstra Group. The Motley Fool Australia has recommended Westpac Banking. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.