Most bonds make regular interest or "coupon" payments—but not zero coupon bonds. Zeros, as they are sometimes called, are bonds that pay no coupon or interest payment.
With a zero, instead of getting interest payments, you buy the bond at a discount from the face value of the bond and are paid the face amount when the bond matures. For example, you might pay $3,500 to purchase a 20-year zero coupon bond with a face value of $10,000. After 20 years, the issuer of the bond pays you $10,000. For this reason, zero coupon bonds are often purchased to meet a future expense such as college costs or an anticipated expenditure in retirement.
Federal agencies, municipalities, financial institutions and corporations issue zero coupon bonds. One of the most popular zeros goes by the name of STRIPS (Separate Trading of Registered Interest and Principal Securities). A financial institution, government securities broker or government securities dealer can convert an eligible Treasury security into a STRIP bond. As the name implies, the interest is stripped from the bond.
A nice feature of STRIPS is that they are non-callable, meaning they can't be called to be redeemed should interest rates fall. This feature offers protection from the risk that you will have to settle for a lower rate of return if your bond is called, you receive cash, and you need to reinvest it (this is known as reinvestment risk).
That said, zero coupon bonds carry various types of risk. Like virtually all bonds, zero coupon bonds are subject to interest-rate risk if you sell before maturity. If interest rates rise, the value of your zero coupon bond on the secondary market will likely fall. Long-term zeros can be particularly sensitive to changes in interest rates, exposing them to what is known as duration risk. Also, zeros may not keep pace with inflation. And while there is little risk of default with Treasury zeros, default risk is something to be mindful of when researching and investing in corporate and municipal zero coupon bonds.
Interest Is NOT Invisible to the IRS
One last thing you should know about zero coupon bonds is the way they are taxed. The difference between the discounted amount you pay for a zero coupon bond and the face amount you later receive is known as "imputed interest." This is interest that the IRS considers to have been paid, even if you haven't actually received it. Therefore, the IRS requires that you pay tax on this "phantom" income each year, just as you would pay tax on interest you received from a coupon bond.
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