A high-yield bond, often called a junk bond, is debt issued by a corporation that has failed to achieve the credit rating of more stable companies. Though they tend to be high-yield, they’re also very risky in most cases.
All investments fall somewhere along the spectrum of risk and reward. In order to increase the chance at a higher reward, an investor must generally increase risk. High-yield bonds are no exception and have a higher likelihood of default than investment-grade bonds. That’s why they are also often called “junk bonds.”
Overview of Bond Market
Bonds are popular with investors for being mostly lower risk than stocks. The bond market works in such a way that it’s made up of a wide asset class that are essentially investments in the debt of a government — federal or local — or a corporation.
They are packaged as a contract between the issuer (the borrower) and the lender (the investor). With bonds, you are acting as both the lender and the investor. That’s why bonds are also referred to as debt instruments, and a key component in how bonds work.
The rate of return that an investor makes on a bond is the rate of interest the issuer pays on their debt plus the increase in value when the bond is sold from when it was purchased. You may hear the interest rate on a bond referred to as the coupon rate. Most bonds make interest payments — coupon payments — twice annually.
You’ll also hear bonds commonly referred to as fixed-income investments. That’s because the interest on a bond is predetermined and will not change, even as markets fluctuate. For example, if a 20-year bond is issued with a 3% interest rate, that interest rate is set and will not change throughout the life of that bond.
Although the interest rate on the bond does not change, the underlying price of the bond can change. Therefore, it is possible to experience negative returns with a bond investment. Bond prices may also retreat in an environment of rising interest rates — this is called interest rate risk.
💡 Quick Tip: When people talk about investment risk, they mean the risk of losing money. Some investments are higher risk, some are lower. Be sure to bear this in mind when investing online.
What Is a High-yield Bond?
As you might expect, high-yield bonds are bonds that pay a high relative rate of interest. Why might a bond pay a higher rate of interest? Most commonly, because there is a higher degree of risk associated with the bond. Hence, the “junk bond” moniker.
The trade-off is that “safer” bond investments typically tend to have a lower yield. Therefore, bonds with lower credit ratings generally must offer higher coupon rates.
In addition to classifications by type (corporate, Treasury, and municipal bonds), bonds are graded on their riskiness, which is also known as their creditworthiness.
A default can occur when the issuer is unable to make timely payments or stops making payments for whatever reason. In some cases of default, the principal — the amount initially invested — cannot be repaid to the lender (i.e., the investor).
Credit Rating Agencies and Junk Bonds
There are two main credit-rating agencies: S&P Global Ratings, and Moody’s.
Each has its own grading system. The S&P rating system, for example, begins at AAA, which is the best rating, and then AA, A, BBB, and so on, down to D. Bonds that are ranked as a D are currently in default and C grades are at a high risk of default.
Using S&P’s system, high-yield bonds are generally classified as below a BBB rating. These bonds are considered to be highly speculative. Bonds at a BBB rating and above are less speculative and sometimes referred to as “investment grade.” With Moody’s rating, high-yield bonds are classified at a Baa rating and below.
This means that bonds with better credit ratings are generally the ones that are least likely to default. Treasurys and corporate bonds issued by large, stable companies are considered very safe and highly unlikely to default. These bonds come with a AAA rating.
Fallen Angels in Bond Market
Fallen angels are companies that have been downgraded from a higher investment-grade credit rating to junk-bond status. Diminished finances, as well as a tough economic environment, could send a company from the coveted investment-graded status to junk.
Rising Stars in Bond Market
A rising star is a junk bond that has potential to become investment grade due to an improved financial position by the company. A rising star could also be a company that’s relatively new to the corporate debt market and therefore has no history of debt. However, analysts at credit-rating firms may judge that the company has high creditworthiness due to its finances or competitive edge.
Junk Bonds Pros & Cons
It’s up to each investor to decide if high-yield bonds have a place in their portfolio. Here are the pros and cons of high-yield bonds so you can make a decision about whether to integrate them into your overall investment strategy.
5 Pros of High-yield Bonds
Here’s a rundown of some of the pros of high-yield bonds.
1. Higher Yield
High-yield bond rates tend to be higher than the rates for investment-grade bonds. The interest rate spread may vary over time, but high-yield bonds having higher rates will generally be true or else no investor would choose a higher-risk bond over a lower-risk bond with the same rate.
2. Consistent Yield
Even most high-yield or junk bonds agree to a yield that is fixed and therefore, predictable. Yes, the risk of default is higher than with an investment-grade bond, but a high-yield bond is not necessarily destined to default. A high-yield bond may provide a more consistent yield than a stock–which is a key thing to know when researching bonds vs. stocks.
3. Bondholders Get Priority When Company Fails
If a company collapses, both stockholders and bondholders are at risk of losing their investments. In the event that assets are liquidated, bondholders are first in line to be paid out and stockholders come next. In this way, a high-yield bond could be considered safer than a stock for the same company.
4. Bond Price May Appreciate Due To Credit Rating
When a bond has a less than perfect rating, it has the opportunity to improve. This is not the case for AAA bonds. If a company gets an improved rating from one of the agencies, it’s possible that the price of the bond may appreciate.
5. Less Interest-Rate Sensitivity
Some analysts believe that high-yield bonds may actually be less sensitive to changes in interest rates because they often have shorter durations. Many high-yield bonds have 10-year, or shorter, terms, which make them less prone to interest rate risk than bonds with maturities of 20 or 30 years.
4 Cons of High-Yield Bonds
Here are some of the cons of high-yield bonds.
1. Higher Default Rates
High-yield bonds offer a higher rate of return because they have a higher risk of default than investment-grade bonds. During a default, it is possible for an investor to lose all money, including the principal amount invested. Unstable companies are particularly vulnerable to collapse, especially during a recession. The rating agencies seek to identify these companies.
2. Hard to Sell
If an investor invests directly in high-yield bonds, they may be more difficult to resell. In general, bond trading is not as fluid as stock trading, and high-yield bonds may attract less demand or have smaller markets, and therefore, may be harder to sell at the desired price, or at all.
3. Bond Price May Depreciate Due to Credit Rating
Just as a bond price could increase with an improved rating, a bond price could fall with a decreased rating. Investors may want to investigate which companies are at risk of a lowered credit rating by one of the major agencies.
4. Sensitive to Interest Rate Changes
All bonds are subject to interest rate risk. Bond prices move in an inverse direction to interest rates; they can decrease in value during periods of increasing interest rates.
💡 Quick Tip: It’s smart to invest in a range of assets so that you’re not overly reliant on any one company or market to do well. For example, by investing in different sectors you can add diversification to your portfolio, which may help mitigate some risk factors over time.
How to Invest in High-yield Bonds
There are two primary ways to invest in junk bonds: by owning the bonds directly and by owning a pool of bonds through the use of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
By owning high-yield bonds directly, you have more control over how your portfolio is invested, but it can be difficult for retail investors to do this. Brokerage firms typically allow sophisticated investors to directly own junk bonds, but even then it could be labor-intensive and a hassle.
Investing in high-yield bond mutual funds or ETFs, on the other hand, may allow you to diversify your holdings quickly and easily.
Junk-bond funds may also allow you to make swift changes to your overall portfolio when needed; they might be more economical for smaller investors; and they allow you to invest in multiple bond funds if desired. It’s important to check both the transaction costs and the internal management fee, called an expense ratio, on your funds.
Do Junk Bonds Fit Into Your Investment Strategy?
The only way to truly determine whether junk bonds are a good or suitable fit for your portfolio and investment strategy is to sit down and take stock of your full financial picture. It may also be worthwhile to consult with a financial professional for guidance.
But generally speaking, junk bonds are likely going to be a suitable addition to your portfolio if you’ve already covered all, or most, of your other bases. That is, that you’ve built a diversified portfolio, and are taking your risk tolerance and time horizon into account. In that case, having some room to “play” with junk bonds may be suitable — but again, a financial professional would know best.
If you’re a beginner investor, or someone who’s trying to build a portfolio from scratch, junk bonds are probably not a good fit. If you’ve been investing for years and have a large, diversified portfolio? Then adding some junk bonds or other high-risk investments to the mix probably wouldn’t be nearly as big of an issue.
Other Higher-Risk Investments
Junk bonds are high-risk investments, but they’re far from the only ones. Here are some other types of relatively high-risk investments to be aware of.
Penny stocks are stocks with very low share prices — typically less than $5 per share, and often, under $1 per share. While these stocks have the potential for huge gains, they’re also very risky and speculative. As such, they may be considered the “junk bonds” of the stock market.
Another type of high-risk stock is IPO stocks, or shares of companies that have recently gone public. While an IPO stock may see its value soar immediately after hitting the market, there’s also a good chance that its value could fall significantly, which makes IPO stocks a risky investment.
REITs, or real estate investment trusts, allow investors to invest in real estate assets without actually buying property. But the real estate market has significant risks, which filter down to REITs and REIT shareholders. That, like the aforementioned investments, makes them risky and speculative.
High-yield bonds, or junk bonds, are debt instruments issued by a corporation that has failed to achieve the credit rating of more stable companies. Though they tend to be high-yield, they’re also very risky in most cases. That doesn’t mean that they don’t necessarily have a place in an investor’s portfolio, however.
While companies that issue high-yield bonds tend to be lower on a scale of creditworthiness than their investment-grade counterparts, junk bonds still tend to have more reliable returns than stocks or nascent markets like cryptocurrencies.
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What is considered a junk bond?
A junk bond describes a type of corporate bond that has a credit rating below most other bonds from stable companies. The low credit rating tends to mean they’re riskier, and accordingly, pay higher yields.
Are high yield bonds good investments?
Generally, no, high-yield bonds or junk bonds are not good investments, mostly because they’re risky and speculative. Again, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t necessarily a place for them in a portfolio, but investors would do well to research them thoroughly before buying.
Which bonds give the highest yield?
High-yield bonds, or junk bonds, tend to give investors the highest yield. These are risky bonds issued by corporations, and have low credit ratings. As such, they’re speculative investments.
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