"Agencies" is a term used to describe two types of bonds: (1) bonds issued or guaranteed by U.S. federal government agencies; and (2) bonds issued by government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)—corporations created by Congress to foster a public purpose, such as affordable housing.
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Bonds issued or guaranteed by federal agencies such as the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) are backed by the "full faith and credit of the U.S. government," just like Treasuries. This is an unconditional commitment to pay interest payments, and to return the principal investment in full to you when a debt security reaches maturity.
Bonds issued by GSEs such as the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage (Freddie Mac) and The Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (Farmer Mac) are not backed by the same guarantee as federal government agencies. Bonds issued by GSEs carry credit risk.
It is important to gather information about the enterprise that is issuing the agency bond, particularly if it is issued by a GSE. Players in the agency bond market—Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Farmer Mac—are publicly traded companies that register their stock with the SEC and provide disclosures that are publicly available including annual reports, quarterly reports and reports of current events that stand to impact the company. These documents can give you insight into the economic health of the company, the challenges and opportunities it faces, and short- and long-term corporate goals. These company filings are available online on the SEC's website. It is important to learn about the issuing agency because it will affect the strength of any guarantee provided on the agency bond. Evaluating an agency's credit rating before you invest should be standard procedure.
Most agency bonds pay a semiannual fixed coupon and are sold in a variety of increments, though the minimum investment level is generally $10,000 for the first increment, and $5,000 increments thereafter. The tax status of agency bonds varies as noted in the chart:
|Legal Name||Common Name||Tax Status|
|Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation||Farmer Mac||Fully taxable|
|Federal Farm Credit Banks Funding Corporation||Farm Credit||State and local exempt|
|Federal Home Loan Banks||FHL Banks||State and local exempt|
|Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation||Freddie Mac||Fully taxable|
|Federal National Mortgage Association||Fannie Mae||Fully taxable|
|Tennessee Valley Authority||TVA||State and local exempt|
Agency bonds can be structured to meet a specific need of an investor, issuer or both.
For instance, in addition to the traditional coupon-paying agency bond, some organizations issue no-coupon discount notes—called "discos"—generally to help them meet short-term financing demands. This explains why disco maturities are usually quite short, ranging from a single day to a year. Discos resemble STRIPS in that they are zero-coupon securities that are issued at a discount to par. As with all bonds that trade at such a discount, if you sell the bond before it matures, you may lose money.
Another type of structured agency security is a step-up note, or "step-up." These securities are callable with a coupon rate that "steps up" over time according to a pre-set schedule. The goal of a step-up is to minimize the impact of interest rate risk. Provided the security is not called, the step-up will keep providing the bondholder with an increased coupon rate, cushioning the investor from interest rate risk. Step-ups are not problem-free, however, as they often offer limited call protection.
Yet another type of agency is a floating-rate security, or "floater." Floaters pay a coupon rate that changes according to an underlying benchmark, such as the six-month T-bill rate.
Agency Bonds Snapshot
|Issuer||Government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)|
|Minimum Investment||Varies—generally $10,000|
|Interest Payment||Fixed coupon or floating/variable coupon rates. Interest is paid semiannually for fixed-coupon security.|
|How to Buy/Sell||Through a broker|
|Bond Interest Rate||Determined at origination and varies by bond|
|Price Information||Issue price and secondary trade data available through a broker and data vendors|
|Risk Profile||Credit and default risk are real for GSE-issued agencies: The federal government is under no legal obligation to save a GSE from default.
Call risk: Many agency securities—step-ups in particular—carry call provisions that allow the issuer to pay you prior to the bond's maturity date, typically when interest rates drop, leaving you to reinvest at lower prevailing rates.
Interest rate risk: If interest rates rise, the value of an agency bond on the secondary market will likely fall.
|Website for More Info||Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA)—The GSE Debt Market: An Overview|