Bonds are simply long-term loans. If you own a bond, you are entitled to a regular interest (or coupon) payment and at maturity you get back the bond’s face value (or principal). In the U.S., coupons are normally paid every six months, but in other countries they may be paid annually.

The value of any bond is equal to its cash payments discounted at the spot rates of interest. For example, the present value of a 10-year bond with a 5% coupon paid annually equals

This calculation uses a different spot rate of interest for each period. A plot of spot rates by maturity shows the term structure of interest rates.

Spot interest rates are most conveniently calculated from the prices of strips, which are bonds that make a single payment of face value at maturity, with zero coupons along the way. The price of a strip maturing in a future date t reveals the discount factor and spot rate for cash flows at that date. All other safe cash payments on that date are valued at that same spot rate.

Investors and financial managers use the yield to maturity on a bond to summarize its prospective return. To calculate the yield to maturity on the 10-year 5s, you need to solve for y in the following equation:

The yield to maturity discounts all cash payments at the same rate, even if spot rates differ. Notice that the yield to maturity for a bond can’t be calculated until you know the bond’s price or present value.

A bond’s maturity tells you the date of its final payment, but it is also useful to know the average time to each payment. This is called the bond’s duration. Duration is important because there is a direct relationship between the duration of a bond and the exposure of its price to changes in interest rates. A change in interest rates has a greater effect on the price of long-duration bonds.

The term structure of interest rates is upward-sloping more often than not. This means that long-term spot rates are higher than short-term spot rates. But it does not mean that investing long is more profitable than investing short. The expectations theory of the term structure tells us that bonds are priced so that an investor who holds a succession of short bonds can expect the same return as another investor who holds a long bond. The expectations theory predicts an upward-sloping term structure only when future short-term interest rates are expected to rise.

The expectations theory cannot be a complete explanation of term structure if investors are worried about risk. Long bonds may be a safe haven for investors with long-term fixed liabilities. But other investors may not like the extra volatility of long-term bonds or may be concerned that a sudden burst of inflation may largely wipe out the real value of these bonds. These investors will be prepared to hold long-term bonds only if they offer the compensation of a higher rate of interest.

Bonds promise fixed nominal cash payments, but the real interest rate that they provide depends on inflation. The best-known theory about the effect of inflation on interest rates was suggested by Irving Fisher. He argued that the nominal, or money, rate of interest is equal to the required real rate plus the expected rate of inflation. If the expected inflation rate increases by 1%, so too will the money rate of interest. During the past 50 years Fisher’s simple theory has not done a bad job of explaining changes in short-term interest rates.

When you buy a U.S. Treasury bond, you can be confident that you will get your money back. When you lend to a company, you face the risk that it will go belly-up and will not be able to repay its bonds. Defaults are rare for companies with investment-grade bond ratings, but investors worry nevertheless. Companies need to compensate investors for default risk by promising to pay higher rates of interest.

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