A corporate bond is an IOU. Companies use bonds to borrow money for capital expenditures, to expand and for a variety of other reasons. The investor who buys a bond lends money to a corporation in return for a fixed yearly payment called the coupon rate, which is usually paid in semi-annual installments. Corporate bonds are popular with investors because they provide good income at lower risk than stocks. Bonds are issued with a face (or par) value. The face value is the sum the company must pay the bondholder when the bond matures. Corporate bonds have maturities of up to 30 years (occasionally even longer), and most have face values of $1000 or $5000. Corporate bonds are traded much like stocks, and their price therefore varies. Unless a bond is very close to maturity, the price is rarely the same as the face value.
Because a corporate bond price changes as it trades on the market, the yield of the bond depends on the actual price, not the face value. When a bond is selling at more than the face value (selling “at a premium”) the yield is lower because the coupon rate is fixed, but you are paying more for the bond. The same is true if the bond’s price falls below the face value (it’s trading at a discount). The coupon rate stays the same, but since you pay less for the bond, the percentage yield is greater. For example, suppose a corporate bond has a coupon rate of $80 and a face value of $1000. The coupon rate is therefore 8.0 percent. If the bond’s price falls to 75 percent of the face value (a market price of $750), you get the same $80 coupon rate. Your yield is $80 divided by $750, or 10.67 percent.
The most important influence on bond prices is the prevailing interest rate. If interest rates rise for any reason (Federal Reserve policy or inflation, for instance) a bond’s yield becomes less attractive. The price will fall until the yield has risen to match the new interest rates. If interest rates fall, bond yields become more attractive, increasing investor demand and driving prices up until the yield again matches the new rates.
The other major factor affecting the price and yield of corporate bonds is risk. Corporate bonds, especially high-quality “blue chip” bonds, are considered safe investments, but they are not without risk. Corporate bonds are rated according to the creditworthiness of the company that issues them by independent ratings services like Moody’s (see link below under Resources). Top rated (AAA) bonds are considered the safest. These bonds tend to have somewhat lower yields because investors are willing to pay more for a lower-risk bond. If a company’s rating goes down, the bond price will fall, increasing the yield to offset the increased risk. So-called “junk bonds” are rated as high-risk. They have higher yields, but investors are less likely to get their money back when the bond matures.
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, W D Adkins has been writing professionally since 2008. He writes about business, personal finance and careers. Adkins holds master's degrees in history and sociology from Georgia State University. He became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2009.