A young woman is writing on a sticky note.
How to invest

What is a bond?

Unlike stocks, bonds don't give you ownership rights. They represent a loan from the buyer (you) to the issuer of the bond.
13 minute read

Why buy bonds?

Bonds are issued by governments and corporations when they want to raise money. By buying a bond, you're giving the issuer a loan, and they agree to pay you back the face value of the loan on a specific date, and to pay you periodic interest payments along the way, usually twice a year.

Unlike stocks, bonds issued by companies give you no ownership rights. So you don't necessarily benefit from the company's growth, but you won't see as much impact when the company isn't doing as well, either—as long as it still has the resources to stay current on its loans.

Bonds, then, give you 2 potential benefits when you hold them as part of your portfolio: They give you a stream of income, and they offset some of the volatility you might see from owning stocks.

Calculate the income for a hypothetical investment based on a specific yield

Holding bonds vs. trading bonds

If you buy a bond, you can simply collect the interest payments while waiting for the bond to reach maturity—the date the issuer has agreed to pay back the bond's face value.

However, you can also buy and sell bonds on the secondary market. After bonds are initially issued, their worth will fluctuate like a stock's would. If you're holding the bond to maturity, the fluctuations won't matter—your interest payments and face value won't change.

But if you buy and sell bonds, you'll need to keep in mind that the price you'll pay or receive is no longer the face value of the bond. The bond's susceptibility to changes in value is an important consideration when choosing your bonds.

Bond terms to know

The language of bonds can be a little confusing, and the terms that are important to know will depend on whether you're buying bonds when they're issued and holding them to maturity, or buying and selling them on the secondary market.

Coupon: This is the interest rate paid by the bond. In most cases, it won't change after the bond is issued.

Yield: This is a measure of interest that takes into account the bond's fluctuating changes in value. There are different ways to measure yield, but the simplest is the coupon of the bond divided by the current price.

Face value: This is the amount the bond is worth when it's issued, also known as "par" value. Most bonds have a face value of $1,000.

Price: This is the amount the bond would currently cost on the secondary market. Several factors play into a bond's current price, but one of the biggest is how favorable its coupon is compared with other similar bonds.

Choosing bonds

Several factors may play into your bond-buying decisions.
 

Maturity & duration

A bond's maturity refers to the length of time until you'll get the bond's face value back.

As with any other kind of loan—like a mortgage—changes in overall interest rates will have more of an effect on bonds with longer maturities.

For example, if current interest rates are 2% lower than your rate on a mortgage on which you have 3 years left to pay, it's going to matter much less than it would for someone who has 25 years of mortgage payments left.

Because bonds with longer maturities have a greater level of risk due to changes in interest rates, they generally offer higher yields so they're more attractive to potential buyers. The relationship between maturity and yields is called the yield curve.

In a normal yield curve, shorter maturities = lower yields

This hypothetical illustration represents a sample yield curve. It doesn't represent any particular investment.

Bond duration, like maturity, is measured in years. It's the outcome of a complex calculation that includes the bond's present value, yield, coupon, and other features. It's the best way to assess a bond's sensitivity to interest rate changes—bonds with longer durations are more sensitive.

BONDS AND INTEREST RATE CHANGES

In most cases, a bond's coupon is set when it's issued, and the rate won't change. So how can volatility in the marketplace affect existing bonds?

Quality

Unlike with stocks, there are organizations that rate the quality of each bond by assigning a credit rating, so you know how likely it is that you'll get your expected payments.

Just as with a car loan or a mortgage, the better the borrower's credit rating, the lower the yield.

If the rating is low—"below investment grade"—the bond may have a high yield but it will also have a risk level more like a stock. On the other hand, if the bond's rating is very high, you can be relatively certain you'll receive the promised payments.

The 2 best-known agencies that rate bonds are Standard & Poor's (S&P) and Moody's Investors Service. They have similar ratings systems, which are based on the issuer's current financial and credit histories.

See more about bond ratings

Types of bonds

Companies can issue bonds, but most bonds are issued by governments. Because governments are generally stable and can raise taxes if needed to cover debt payments, these bonds are typically higher-quality, although there are exceptions.
 

U.S. Treasuries

These are considered the safest possible bond investments.

You'll have to pay federal income tax on interest from these bonds, but the interest is generally exempt from state tax. Because they're so safe, yields are generally the lowest available, and payments may not keep pace with inflation. Treasuries are extremely liquid.

Certain types of Treasuries have specific characteristics:

  • Treasury bills have maturities of 1 year or less. Unlike most other bonds, these securities don't pay interest. Instead, they're issued at a "discount"—you pay less than face value when you buy it but get the full face value back when the bond reaches its maturity date.
  • Treasury notes have maturities between 2 years and 10 years.
  • Treasury bonds have maturities of more than 10 years—most commonly, 30 years.
  • Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) have a return that fluctuates with inflation.


Take a closer look ...
Do you need income that fluctuates with inflation? Learn more about our TIPS funds.

  • Separate Trading of Registered Interest and Principal of Securities (STRIPS) are essentially Treasuries that have had their coupon payments "stripped" away, meaning that the coupon and face value portions of the bond are traded separately.
  • Floating rate notes have a coupon that moves up and down based on the coupon offered by recently auctioned Treasury bills.
     

Read more about Treasury securities
 

Government agency bonds

Some agencies of the U.S. government can issue bonds as well—including housing-related agencies like the Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA or Ginnie Mae). Most agency bonds are taxable at the federal and state level.

These bonds are typically high-quality and very liquid, although yields may not keep pace with inflation. Some agency bonds are fully backed by the U.S. government, making them almost as safe as Treasuries.

Because mortgages can be refinanced, bonds that are backed by agencies like GNMA are especially susceptible to changes in interest rates. The families holding these mortgages may refinance (and pay off the original loans) either faster or slower than average depending on which is more advantageous.

If interest rates rise, fewer people will refinance and you (or the fund you're investing in) will have less money coming in that can be reinvested at the higher rate. If interest rates fall, refinancing will accelerate and you'll be forced to reinvest the money at a lower rate.

Read more about agency bonds

Read more about GNMA bonds

Municipal bonds

These bonds (also called "munis" or "muni bonds") are issued by states and other municipalities. They're generally safe because the issuer has the ability to raise money through taxes—but they're not as safe as U.S. government bonds, and it is possible for the issuer to default.

Interest from these bonds is free from federal income tax, as well as state tax in the state in which it's issued. Because of the favorable tax treatment, yields are generally lower than those of bonds that are federally taxable.

Read more about municipal bonds

 

Corporate bonds

These bonds are issued by companies, and their credit risk ranges over the whole spectrum. Interest from these bonds is taxable at both the federal and state levels. Because these bonds aren't quite as safe as government bonds, their yields are generally higher.

High-yield bonds ("junk bonds") are a type of corporate bond with low credit ratings.

Read more about corporate bonds

DOMESTIC OR INTERNATIONAL?

Bonds can also be divided based on whether their issuers are inside or outside the United States. The U.S. market makes up only a portion of the world's opportunities for bond investing.

What's next?

You can research and choose bonds individually, but we suggest that you consider having most of your bond portfolio be made up of mutual funds or ETFs (exchange-traded funds).

Learn about choosing between funds and individual securities

Learn about bond mutual funds

See more about Vanguard bond ETFs

We're here for you

Partner with a Vanguard advisor. If you'd like a professional to maintain your portfolio for you, we can do that. Research shows that an advisor who provides professional financial planning, coaching, and portfolio oversight can add meaningful value compared with the average investor experience.*

Find out about Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

Saving for retirement or college?

See guidance that can help you make a plan, solidify your strategy, and choose your investments.

Already know what you want?

From ETFs and mutual funds to stocks and bonds, find all the investments you're looking for, all in one place.

Saving for retirement or college?

See guidance that can help you make a plan, solidify your strategy, and choose your investments.

Already know what you want?

From ETFs and mutual funds to stocks and bonds, find all the investments you're looking for, all in one place.

Start investing now

Start investing now

*Source: Donald G. Bennyhoff and Francis M. Kinniry Jr., 2016. Vanguard Advisor's Alpha®. Valley Forge, Pa.: The Vanguard Group.

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

Bond funds are subject to interest rate risk, which is the chance bond prices overall will decline because of rising interest rates, and credit risk, which is the chance a bond issuer will fail to pay interest and principal in a timely manner or that negative perceptions of the issuer's ability to make such payments will cause the price of that bond to decline.

Investments in bonds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk.

While U.S. Treasury or government agency securities provide substantial protection against credit risk, they do not protect investors against price changes due to changing interest rates. The market values of government securities are not guaranteed and may fluctuate but these securities are guaranteed as to the timely payment of principal and interest.

Although the income from a municipal bond fund is exempt from federal tax, you may owe taxes on any capital gains realized through the fund's trading or through your own redemption of shares. For some investors, a portion of the fund's income may be subject to state and local taxes, as well as to the federal Alternative Minimum Tax.

Investments in stocks and bonds issued by non-U.S. companies are subject to risks including country/regional risk, which is the chance that political upheaval, financial troubles, or natural disasters will adversely affect the value of securities issued by companies in foreign countries or regions; and currency risk, which is the chance that the value of a foreign investment, measured in U.S. dollars, will decrease because of unfavorable changes in currency exchange rates.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc., a registered investment advisor, or by Vanguard National Trust Company, a federally chartered, limited purpose trust company.

The services provided to clients who elect to receive ongoing advice will vary based upon the amount of assets in a portfolio. Please review the Form CRS and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Brochure for important details about the service, including its asset based service levels and fee breakpoints.

VAI is a subsidiary of The Vanguard Group, Inc., and an affiliate of Vanguard Marketing Corporation. Neither VAI nor its affiliates guarantee profits or protection from losses.