Investing > Complete Guide to Fixed-Income

Complete Guide to Fixed-Income

Unlike stocks, fixed-income securities offer low—but generally predictable—returns.

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Updated January 20, 2022

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Do you think of the Easter Bunny as a good financial advisor?

Surely, the Easter Bunny would spend all of its income on greens rather than allocating it properly. More importantly, it would prefer hiding its eggs all over the place instead of keeping them all in one spot. Seemingly random, but there is a method to this madness as the case may be.

Keeping all your investments in one place may seem tempting. If your basket is full of equity securities, for instance, your “eggs” might all become golden at a certain point if you are willing to take that risk and wait long enough for their value to rise. 📈

But just like eggs, possibly even more so, investments can be fragile and their value can go down just as easily as it could rise, thus potentially leaving you with a basket full of broken shells—a considerable loss of money. Hard to call it a safe bet, as we all saw an event such as a global pandemic shifting the market throughout 2021 and affecting prices.

So betting all your finances on a single basket can be profitable in theory, but it could also potentially cause quite ‘eggregious’ results.

So where could you store your valuable eggs to manage your potential losses? 🧐

If you are looking for a slightly less volatile nesting place for your money or rather a way to diversify your investments, fixed-income securities could offer you just that. For instance, in contrast to equities, they carry certain levels of legal protection that their counterparts do not, and have more predictable—although admittedly less significant—financial returns.

In this guide, we will introduce you to what fixed-income securities are in essence, as well as what benefits they offer, including the potential drawbacks they come with.

What you’ll learn
  • What are Fixed-Income Investments?
  • Types of Fixed-Income Securities
  • Fixed-Income Assets and Taxes
  • What Impacts Prices and Yields?
  • Benefits of Fixed-Income Assets
  • Drawbacks of Fixed-Income Assets
  • Conclusion
  • Get Started with a Stock Broker

What are Fixed-Income Investments? 👨‍🏫

The term ‘fixed income’ may seem perplexing at first glance, but in reality, the key concept behind the investments is not strenuous to grasp. Owing money to a bank, unfortunately, is not, nor probably ever will be that rare of an occasion—but in this case, you are the one who is owed money.

By buying a fixed-income security, the entity you bought it from has to pay you back with interest over time. You as well as all the others who buy into the investment, that is. And since you can buy debt from some pretty big financial institutions, you can rest assured that their credit scores are through the roof.

Bonds, one of the most frequent types of fixed-income assets, are commonly issued by companies or the government as a means of funding for large scaled projects or ongoing expenses. For instance, in February 2021, local government agencies issued $390 million of tax-exempt muni-bonds to fund the renovation of Bankers Life Fieldhouse arena in Indianapolis. 

What buying a bond means is that you as an investor are buying the amount of debt that the bond is issued for. The issuer is set to repay you the money they have borrowed at the bond’s maturity date, which may take up to several years. To make it financially worthwhile for you, in the meantime, the issuer will additionally payout fixed interest or dividends, hence the name—fixed-income investments.

How a bond works
Bondholders have priority over other investors in a company when it comes to who gets paid first, further lowering risk in case of bankruptcy.

Although the return rates on fixed-income investments are relatively low when compared to potential ROI of equities, the steady stream of income they provide and the improbability of their collapse make them attractive among investors.

Fixed-income securities such as bonds may be included in a well-balanced portfolio to balance out riskier investments. As the investor approaches retirement, the percentage of assets allocated to bonds may increase, as there are some nice benefits to this.

Types of Fixed-Income Securities 🗃

We have covered the basics of how these securities function and what makes them generally appealing as a form of investment. At this point, you may be considering acquiring some of them and diversifying your investment portfolio in that fashion.

Be that as it may, choosing the type of fixed-income security you want to buy into might be a process slightly more complicated than that. There are several different varieties of fixed-income investments on the market—each with its distinctive properties when it comes to returns they provide as well as their liquidity.

So let’s have a closer look at some of the most frequent types of fixed-income assets out there as well as potential advantages and disadvantages that each one brings to the table.

Corporate Bonds 💰

This type of fixed-income security is issued by a company to raise funds for larger projects or current expenses. Buying a company-issued bond essentially means you will be lending your money to them and in return, they will provide you with an arrangement of multiple interest payments at either fixed or variable interest rates.

What makes a company’s corporate bond attractive is its ability to repay them, which is determined by its future revenue and profitability projections. Physical assets of the corporation may be used as collateral in specific instances. 

U.S. rating agencies examine corporate bonds before they are issued to investors to determine the issuer’s creditworthiness. They have separate grading systems, but commonly, the highest-rated ones are the so-called “Triple-A” bonds and these usually have better credit ratings, but lower coupon rates. Think of them as premium-grade sturdy eggs. 👑

The lowest rated bonds, also known as junk bonds, come with greater coupon rates—but beware! The risk of default for low-grade bonds is higher, which means the company in question might not be able to pay you. These are not so far off from equities in terms of volatility—a higher chance for a golden egg, but also a higher chance for an omelet.

Generally speaking, corporate bonds are thought to be riskier than U.S. government bonds. As a result, even for corporations with top-tier credit ratings, interest rates are virtually always higher. Even so, at the very end of 2021, corporate bonds went out of fashion despite their higher returns because of overall market fear. 

These bonds are tradeable on the secondary market—you can choose to sell them before their maturity date, but you will get less than their face value. If the number of due payments is low or if the company is struggling, it may further decrease their liquidity if there is no demand for them.

Having that in mind, even if the company collapses, it must pay its bondholders and other creditors fully before stock owners can get their compensation, which is one of the key differences between owning a company’s shares and bonds.

Quick recap of corporate bonds:

  • ☑️ Often thought to be riskier than government bonds
  • ☑️ They have higher interest rates to compensate for the risk
  • ☑️ The greater their grade, the more stable the returns
  • ☑️ Tradeable on the secondary market
  • ☑️ Bondholder’s compensation takes priority in case of bankruptcy

Government Bonds 💳

Similar to corporate bonds, government bonds represent debt that the government sells to investors to fund its projects. Sovereign debt is another term for government bonds. The issuer being the government itself is what makes these types of fixed income securities regarded as low-risk investments. 

Some of these bonds may pay interest regularly while other types don’t pay until they’ve reached maturity. Government bonds that do the latter, however, are usually known to pay low interest rates. 

The United States Treasury offers a variety of bonds, with different maturity rates, that are considered to be extremely safe. These “eggs” have an incubation period that sometimes can last up to several decades, but when it comes to shell integrity, they are as safe as it gets—and to make things extra sweet, these bonds are free of state and local taxes:

TypeFeatures
Savings Bonds
  • Issued as Series I or Series EE bonds
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Biannual interest compounds
  • Inflation-adjusted interest rates for Series I
  • Can be redeemed after 5 years with no penalty fee
Treasury Bonds
  • Long-term bonds,10-30 years maturity
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Biannual interest payments
  • Sold in $100 increments
Treasury Notes
  • Intermediate-term bonds, 2-10 years maturity
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Biannual interest payments
Treasury Bills
  • Short-term bonds, up to 1-year maturity
  • Fixed interest rate
  • Quarterly interest payments
  • High palpable net worth
  • Sold in denominations of $1000
Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities
  • Viewed as intermediate to long-term bonds
  • Inflation-indexed interest rates
  • Biannual interest payments

Government bonds in the U.S. have a fairly liquid market, allowing holders to easily resell them, and there are also exchange-traded funds and mutual funds that invest solely in Treasury bonds. The Federal Reserve also expands the money supply by repurchasing U.S. government bonds and providing funds to sellers to boost economic activity.

On the other hand, as they are closely tied to a country, these assets carry other types of risks. Fixed-rate bonds can be affected by inflation or rising market interest rates. The U.S. treasury yields fell under 1.5% amidst the outbreak of the omicron variant in November 2021.

Furthermore, foreign bonds are also more vulnerable to fluctuations in currency rates and the possibility of default. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98, several Asian countries were compelled to devalue their currencies during this crisis which had global ramifications, as Russia defaulted on its debt as a result. 

Quick recap of government bonds:

  • ☑️ Viewed as one of the safest securities (U.S. Treasury bonds)
  • ☑️ Interest income returns are lower but steady
  • ☑️ With longer maturity rates, returns are better
  • ☑️ A highly liquid market for reselling
  • ☑️ Most of them are affected by inflation rates

Fixed-Income Mutual Funds and ETFs 💸

Fixed-income funds are pooled investment vehicles that invest primarily in a portfolio of fixed-income assets—government, corporate, convertible, municipal bonds and mortgage-backed securities included. Essentially, by buying a fund, you are investing in a group of assets for a lower minimum investment.

A bond fund is, in essence, a mutual fund that only invests in bonds, and many investors view it as a more effective way of investing in fixed-income security than buying an individual bond. What separates them from lone bond securities is that they do not have a maturity date for principal’s repayment so its amount may fluctuate with time. ⏳

What you do by investing in these funds is entrusting your capital to a bond fund manager who buys and sells the bonds according to market conditions. Interest payments are still made monthly but money distribution may vary on a month-to-month basis, depending on the assets included.

Should you invest in fixed-income funds, you would need to pay the annual expense ratio that covers administrative, marketing, and management fees. The average fee for bond mutual fund expenses continued its downward trend from the past years and in 2020 it was 0.42%. While the fee may seem small, it is worth noting that most of the leading stock brokers on the market offer no-commission trading.

For the most part, fixed-income mutual funds are comprised of securities that share two traits in common: the type of security they belong to and the period it takes for them to reach maturity based on which they belong to short, intermediate, and long-term assets. 📁

Bond funds are comprised of either a single type of fixed income investment or can be more flexible and contain a mix of different asset types.

Bond ETFs are very similar—these exchange-traded funds deal with groups of fixed-income securities. These are traded throughout the day and the price of their shares may fluctuate as equities do. 

Bond funds can be sold at any time for their current net asset value on the market (NAV for short) and are easier to liquidate than individual bonds, while the liquidity of bond ETFs depends on the market’s supply and demand.

Quick recap of fixed-income mutual funds and ETFs:

  • ☑️ Group type of investment comprised of fixed-income securities
  • ☑️ Diversification of portfolio for lower minimum investment
  • ☑️ They provide fluctuating interest payments
  • ☑️ Managed by professionals at the cost of an annual fee
  • ☑️ Bond funds are easier to liquidate than individual bonds
  • ☑️ Affected by the same risks as the securities they encompass

Certificate of Deposit (CD) 📜

Certificates of deposit are offered by banks or credit unions to their customers. Unlike many activities that banks usually do, this one does not rob you of your money—it will actually give you some money.

If the customer agrees to the offer to keep a lump sum of deposited money untouched for a certain time, the bank or credit union will, in exchange, agree to pay a higher interest rate on it. Essentially, it’s like renting your money out for a fee.

Terms of the agreement offered may vary depending on the institution, including how high the rate is compared to the savings and penalties applied for earlier withdrawal. All banks are mean, but some are meaner than others, and therefore, shopping around for the best CD rates could potentially get you several times higher returns. 💵

The average yearly returns for CDs as of December 2020 was 0.77% when adjusted to the inflation rate, which compared to an average return of stocks of 8.26% for the same year, seems rather insignificant.

Having a CD is a lot like opening a standard bank deposit account, the difference being there are a couple more things you’ll be agreeing to when signing up:

Interest RateTermPrincipal
  • Cannot be increased or reduced once the deal is signed
  • Payments on a monthly or quarterly level
  • Deposited directly to your CD balance
  • The period until the maturity of your capital
  • Usually 6 to 18 months
  • There is a penalty fee if you decide to withdraw the money before it expires
  • The amount of money you leave deposited for the duration of the term
  • Instructions can be made to automatically renew the term, or reinvest it further.

In terms of risk, CDs are one of the safest types of investments out there. You know what you get the moment you sign up for it, and for better or worse, interest rates won’t fluctuate and they are greater than those you could earn with savings or money market accounts. The tradeoff here is that CDs liquidity is solely based on its maturity rate, and this is not very practical compared to some other types of fixed-income securities.

Government insurance that covers all deposit products protects your money as well. Should the institution, bank, or credit union fail, up to $250.000 of your funds are insured.
Bank failures are not that common of an occurrence in the 21st century, but it’s still nice to know this wouldn’t jeopardize your deposit. 

The downside of it is, well, you will technically “lock-up” the funds agreed upon unless you pay the set penalty. This can also be viewed as upside as it may deter you from spending it while essentially providing you with additional funds for possible future investments. 

Quick recap of certificates of deposit (CDs):

  • ☑️ A fixed agreement between the investor and the financial institution
  • ☑️ Deposited money cannot be withdrawn without a penalty fee
  • ☑️ Fixed interest rates immune to any fluctuation
  • ☑️ Returns are predictable but also lower than most bonds
  • ☑️ Liquidity is very low, no market for reselling
  • ☑️ Deposit federally insured in case of institution’s bankruptcy

Fixed-Income Assets and Taxes 📙

As we have established so far, fixed-income assets differ from equities in terms of their safety, returns, and liquidity. But if you are looking to hatch any profit from these securities, in both cases, you need to be wary of the foxes preying upon your carefully stashed eggs—we’re talking about the government of course.

With the certainty of tax constantly looming over our heads, it pays to know the rules of the game before looking into buying the bonds or any other types of fixed-income ventures for that matter. So what are the potential tax advantages or disadvantages for these securities? 🤔

These assets generate two potentially taxable types of income: interest and capital gains. As this group of investments is very diverse, so is the way they are taxed, and they vary from fully to partially taxable, while some are completely non-taxable.

Interest income from a fixed type of security can or cannot be taxable, depending on the security itself. Corporate bonds, for instance, are, and you would have to pay income tax on the interest in the year they are received. The tax rate you would pay on this would be the same as your income tax—depending on which of the seven tax brackets you correspond to.

Taxable IncomeTax Rate
$0 - $9,87510%
$9,876 - $40,125$987.50 + 12% for the the income above $9,875
$40,126 - $85,525$4,617.50 + 22% for the the income above $40,125
$85,526 - $163,300$14,605.50 + 24% for the the income above $85,525
$163,301 - $207,350$33,271.50 + 32% for the the income above $163,300
$207,351 - $518,400$47,367.50 + 35% for the the income above $207,350
$518,401+$156,235 + 37% for the the income above $518,400

As far as the capital gains are considered, buying a fixed-income asset and holding it until its maturity won’t generate capital gains as it is considered a return of your principal. In case that you decide to sell your fixed-income investments before their maturity date on a secondary market, they can muster capital gains and losses.

The profit you make in this way is considered a capital gain and taxable as such, in a similar manner to how stocks are taxed. Their tax rates potentially can be reduced from 0% to 20% in accordance with your total taxable income and filing status.

The table below shows the tax advantages or disadvantages linked to individual fixed-income securities:

Type of Fixed-Income SecurityTaxable on a Federal LevelTaxable on a State LevelTaxable on a Local Level
CDs✔️✔️✔️
Mortgage-backed securities✔️✔️✔️
Global/diversified bond funds✔️✔️✔️
Corporate Bonds✔️✔️✔️
Treasury-issued bonds and federal agency securities and treasury/federal security ETFs✔️✔️
Municipal-bonds and muni-bond ETFs❌ - if bought in your home state❌ - if bought in your home municipality

Something to have in mind, however, is that these tax advantages are usually calculated into the price of a security and subsequently its returns. In some cases, tax-exempt bond incomes can be subjected to the so-called alternative minimum tax. Consulting a qualified tax advisor may be the best way to go around the specifics of these exemptions—if you’re dealing with a fox, it’s good to know its tricks.

What Impacts Fixed-Income Investment Prices and Yields 📊

Although fixed-income assets are significantly less volatile and more predictable than their equity counterparts, they carry their own individual risks in addition to their potential benefits.

The cost of a bond, for example, is closely connected to interest rate fluctuations. When the interest rate improves, the bond’s price tends to fall, and vice-versa—the drop of interest rates corresponds to a higher bond price. 

This essentially means that when interest rates rise, the bonds you hold will lose their value, and you would be losing capital— this is called interest rate risk.

change in Federal interest rates
Every change in Federal interest rates (orange) will influence the trend of bond prices (blue), but isn’t the only price factor. Image by TradingView.

On the other hand, investing in corporate bonds means that in addition to interest rate risk, you will potentially be taking on credit risk as well. Essentially, their issuer of debt could default on the bond, and when this happens, you may not receive your initial investment back in its entirety. 

If you’re shopping for corporate bonds, you may notice that some of them have the same maturity date and interest rates but their pricing can be significantly different. This is most likely because of potential credit risks involved— the higher price of the bond, the more financially stable the issuer usually is.

If inflation eclipses fixed-income scheduled returns, you as an investor are losing your purchasing power and this is called inflation rate risk. In November of 2021, inflation surged by 6.8% at its fastest pace since 1982, and the returns on the long-term fixed-income investments such as treasury bonds move as the inflation does—in this case not particularly great.

Inflation rates in the U.S.
Inflation rates in the U.S. in the past century have changed many times, and so have bond yields. Image by TradingView.

Owning fixed-income securities in periods of high inflation basically means that you would be losing money at a slower pace rather than profiting. While equities are more volatile in some aspects, their returns historically are higher than the inflation rates.

Ultimately there is a risk that you, as a seller, might not find a suitable buyer if you are looking to quickly and efficiently cash in on your fixed-income assets on the secondary market. 

Actively-traded bond issues often produce greater liquidity of the assets and less traded fixed-income securities come with valid liquidity risk. Depending on market conditions and the issuer of the bond, high-yield assets can often be not as liquid as the lower-yield ones.

Other Factors 📚

Some bonds allow the issuer to redeem them before their maturity date—these are named callable bonds. What this means is that the issuer of a bond can reissue it when interest rates fall, at a decreased cost. This can create reinvestment risk—a possibility that your income and principal repayments will have to be invested at lower rates.

Prepayment risk is somewhat similar, as the issuer can repay bonds in some instances before their maturity date. Underlying collateral in mortgage-backed securities can be paid back to the investor ahead of schedule, thus forcing their hand to reinvest the principal at a potentially disadvantageous time.

But it is also worth mentioning that the securities susceptible to these additional risks, such as prepayment or reinvestment, may demand higher potential returns.

Quick recap:

  • ☑️ Interest rates affect the value of bonds
  • ☑️ The bonds can default in the case of bankruptcy
  • ☑️ The price of corporate bonds may be an indicator of their financial stability
  • ☑️ Inflation can eclipse the returns on government bonds and cause the money loss
  • ☑️ Overall liquidity of the assets depends on their popularity based on 

Benefits of Fixed-Income Assets 🌟

Fixed-income assets are widely regarded as stocks’ less risky counterparts as they are less volatile, their returns are more predictable and they are generally less affected by geopolitical events and economic downturns. Stocks can indeed provide more significant financial gain, but also a lot more stress, if you bet solely on them.

To avoid such risks, allocating some of your assets towards fixed-income securities can prove to be beneficial in more ways than one. Having them mixed into the foundations of your financial portfolio makes it more flexible and could essentially preserve your investment over time for long-term goals and help you divert losses during bear markets when stock market swings. 🐻

During a recessive period, interest rates can drop and prices of treasury bonds can grow higher as The Federal Reserve invests in them—this could make them potentially a good asset to invest in during bearish periods.

The layers of protection some of them offer are also one of the reasons they are viewed as dependable ventures. Treasury bonds are backed by the government, while CDs are under Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s protection, should the institution that issued them collapse. Corporate bondholders are paid before stockholders as they have a higher claim on corporate assets in the case of a company’s bankruptcy.

Should your bonds fail, you could use this to an advantage if you possess a diverse financial portfolio. Investors used the fall of fixed-income ETFs in 2021 to offset some capital losses and reduce their overall tax bills.

Pros of fixed-income securities:

  • ☑️ Historically less affected by geopolitical and economic downturns than stocks
  • ☑️ If occurrences of market swings can offset some of the losses
  • ☑️ Potentially a good investment in recession periods
  • ☑️ Layers of protection make them safer to a degree
  • ☑️ Losses could be used to reduce your tax bills

Drawbacks of Fixed-Income Assets 🚧

Diversification does mean that you will be avoiding certain risks, but there is no beating around the bush here—it also means that you will be bringing the other risks to the party.

The liquidity of fixed-income on the secondary market is very limited, as not all of them are tradeable. Additionally, returns are often meager, and it can sometimes be difficult to find a buyer. Cashing out on them before their maturity date is reached will also yield you lower financial returns, as you will be missing out on interest rate payments. 🗓

In addition to liquidity risk, it is worth noting that inflation could outpace your fixed-income assets in the long run and affect the worth of your investments as well. Inflation rates have risen globally throughout 2021, with the U.S. seeing one of the biggest increases yet—certainly, a factor that cannot be ignored. The longer the maturity of the bond, the more they could potentially be affected by this.

Should you invest in foreign government bonds, you should be aware of political factors in play in the country that issues them, and unlike U.S. treasury-based ones, these do not offer tax benefits.

If you invest in corporate bonds, a company’s bankruptcy can heavily impact your pockets. Especially if you are investing in junk bonds, which are as volatile as equities go, if not even more so, as this means that they can default on their debt obligation.

Cons of fixed-income securities:

  • ☑️ It can be very difficult to liquidate them
  • ☑️ Returns they provide are often meager compared to equities
  • ☑️ Cashing out on them early can cause even lower returns
  • ☑️ Greatly affected by inflation, especially the long-term bonds
  • ☑️ Foreign bonds affected by additional political factors
  • ☑️ Corporate bonds carry a risk of defaulting on the debt

Conclusion 💬

So how potentially prosperous is it to lay your financial eggs in the nest of fixed-income investments? 

If you want to avert some risks that stocks come with, it’s a snug nesting place and more importantly, helps you preserve some of your hard-earned capital. Keeping all of your eggs in one basket is bad, but so is keeping them all in one nest and allocating your assets accordingly helps you manage the uncertainty a bit better.

The fixed-income assets may take longer to “hatch” and produce minor returns, but if you are not willing to risk and wait for all your eggs to turn golden and potentially break, they might be worth looking at as a possible nesting ground for some of them.

Fixed Income: FAQs

  • What is the Difference Between Fixed Income and Equity?

    Fixed income refers to securities that pay you regular fixed amounts of money and are considered less risky, whereas equity income comes from trading shares and securities on the stock exchange (and dividend payments). Equities are generally riskier but returns there can be dramatically higher.

  • Are Bonds Safe if the Market Crashes?

    In case of a market crash, U.S. Treasury bonds are considered to be among the safest investments given the government’s ability to print money eliminates the risk. However, high-yield corporate bonds are highly correlated with equities, and as such, may succumb to the market’s collapse.

  • Can Fixed Income Funds Lose Money?

    As fixed-income funds consist of fixed-income investments, the risks these assets carry are transferred to the fund as well, so we could say that they are safe as much as their bonds are. However, as they are managed by professional traders, those risks are supposed to be timely alleviated and minimized, which makes bond funds less susceptible to losses.

  • What is Yield To Maturity (YTM)?

    YTM of a bond is its net profit or return. This is determined by subtracting the face value and interest payments from the amount due at maturity.

  • Are Bonds Tax-Free?

    Some of them are to a degree—muni-bonds are potentially free from all levels of taxation if you buy them in your home state or city, and the U.S. treasury-issued bonds are free from local and state taxes. As far as the other bonds go, their interest rate is taxable for the year it is received via scheduled payment.

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