Smart Bond Investing—Understanding Risk
If you have ever loaned money to someone, chances are you gave some thought to the likelihood of being repaid. Some loans are riskier than others. The same is true when you invest in bonds. You are taking a risk that the issuer's promise to repay principal and pay interest on the agreed upon dates and terms will be upheld. While U.S. Treasury securities are generally deemed to be risk-free, most bonds face a possibility of default. This means that the bond obligor will either be late paying creditors (including you, as a bondholder), pay a negotiated reduced amount or, in worst-case scenarios, be unable to pay at all.
Ratings are a way of assessing default and credit risk.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has designated 10 rating agencies as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations (NRSROs). They are:
These organizations review information about selected issuers, especially financial information, such as the issuer's financial statements, and assign a rating to an issuer's bonds—from AAA (or Aaa) to D (or no rating).
Each NRSRO uses its own ratings definitions and employs its own criteria for rating a given security. It is entirely possible for the same bond to receive a rating that differs, sometimes substantially, from one ratings agency to the next. While it is a good idea to compare a bond's rating across the various NRSROs, not all bonds are rated by every agency, and some bonds are not rated at all.
Slow Down When You See "High Yield"
Generally, bonds are lumped into two broad categories—investment grade and non-investment grade. Bonds that are rated BBB, bbb, Baa or higher are generally considered investment grade. Bonds that are rated BB, bb, Ba or lower are non-investment grade. Non-investment grade bonds are also referred to as high yield or junk bonds. Junk bonds are considered riskier investments because the issuer’s general financial condition is less sound. This means the entity issuing the bond—a corporation, for instance— may not be able to pay the interest and principal to bondholders when they are due.
Junk bonds typically offer a higher yield than investment-grade bonds, but the higher yield comes with increased risk—specifically, the risk that the bond’s issuer may default.
Many investors heavily weigh the rating of a particular bond in determining if it is an appropriate and suitable investment. Although credit ratings are an important indicator of creditworthiness, you should also consider that the value of the bond might change depending upon changes in the company’s business and profitability. Some credit rating agencies issue outlooks and other statements to warn you if they are considering upgrading or downgrading a credit rating. In the worst scenario, holders of bonds could suffer significant losses, including the loss of their entire investment. Finally, some bonds are not rated. In such cases, you may find it difficult to assess the overall creditworthiness of the issuer of the bond.
Believe it or not, there is a market for distressed and even defaulted debt. This is a playing field for sophisticated bond investors who are seeking—often through painstaking research, or with the intent to assume increased investment risk—to find a few diamonds in this very rough environment characterized by bankruptcies and steep debt downgrades.
Do not make your investment decision based solely on a bond's yield. This is referred to as "reaching for yield," and is one of the most common mistakes bond investors make. See FINRA’s Investor Alert The Grass Isn’t Always Greener—Chasing Return in a Challenging Investment Environment.
Download the print version: