Guide to Market-Linked Certificates of Deposit (CDs)

By Paulina Likos · June 28, 2022 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Market-Linked Certificates of Deposit (CDs)

The primary difference between a market-linked CD (MLCD) and a traditional CD is that a regular CD pays a fixed rate of interest, while the market-linked CD tracks a basket of underlying securities or an index like the S&P 500. These accounts are sometimes called equity-linked CDs or stock CDs.

Otherwise, an MLCD is similar to a traditional certificate of deposit, in that it’s a time-deposit account with a fixed term during which the investor’s funds are unavailable. The principal (though not the gains) is federally insured up to $250,000. But market-linked CDs come with some risks — including the possibility of zero gains at maturity. To decide whether a market-linked CD is right for you, keep reading.

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What Is a Market-Linked CD?

Investing in CDs offers some familiar advantages, chiefly that the CD investor can deposit their funds for the specified term (typically a few months to a few years), and count on a steady rate of return until the CD reaches maturity.

The CD’s total return is unlikely to be high, especially when comparing deposit accounts, because it’s based on current interest rates, but there is little to no market risk. Traditional CDs are federally insured, whether by a bank or a credit union, for up to $250,000. For this reason, traditional CDs are considered a fairly low-return, low-risk investment.

Market-linked CDs share some of these features — e.g. the investor deposits funds for a set period of time, and the funds are unavailable until the CD matures. But the returns of an MLCD are, as the name suggests, linked to the stock market, which adds in a layer of potential reward, but also potential risk.

Unlike traditional CDs, which are considered cash equivalents, market-linked CDs are more like securities.

How Do Market-Linked CDs Work?

Unlike traditional CDs, market-linked CDs do not offer fixed interest payments. Rather the return is based on the underlying investments or market index the CD tracks. Some of these market benchmarks include equity, commodity indexes, or a basket of commodities or currencies. But investors don’t see precisely the same gains and losses as the market.

Typically, the upside of MLCDs is capped in one of two ways. For example, the return on a market-linked CD will be determined by its participation rate, i.e. the percentage of the upside you will see. For example, an 80% participation rate means you only receive 80% of the gains from the underlying market. An interest cap refers to an MLCD where there is simply an upper limit for any gains.

Fortunately, the principal amount deposited in the CD is protected. At maturity, investors will get their full deposit back. But if the market underperforms, the CD may not have any gains. In other words, at maturity there is no guarantee your return will be more than your deposit amount.

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How to Calculate the Return of a Market-Linked CD

The reason for creating market-linked CDs goes back to the days when banks couldn’t sell securities, and these products offered investors a workaround. Consider that the average stock market return is about 9.0% over time, and it’s easy to see why investors might want this feature.

To calculate the return of a market-linked CD, financial institutions average out the close price of the underlying index over a certain period of time. For this method, you can take the average of the index’s different values in two different periods.

Another method you can use is the point-to-point method which involves identifying two values. The first is the value of the index when the market-linked CD was issued, and the other is the value of the index before the CD’s maturity date, which is referred to as the ending point. The difference between these two values will yield the expected return on your market-linked CD.

The final return also assumes that the funds are left in the CD until maturity. Withdrawing funds earlier than the maturity date — whether that’s two months or 20 years — will trigger early withdrawal penalties.

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Pros of Market-Linked CDs

Market-linked CDs have several favorable characteristics that may be appealing for investors who are looking for alternatives to conventional CDs, or directly investing in the stock market without having too much risk exposure.

•   Protection: Market-linked CDs protect your principal and when held to maturity, the principal is backed by the bank that issues it. In the scenario where the underlying market declines during the period where you hold the CD, investors are protected from losses.

•   Insurance: Market-linked CDs are also FDIC- or NCUA-insured for up to $250,000 on the principal investment, not investment earnings.

•   Potentially higher returns: Market-linked CDs have the ability to provide investors with higher returns than traditional CDs. Because the underlying is based on a collection of stocks, commodities, or indexes, there is a chance market-linked CDs can outperform traditional CDs.

•   Return on original deposit: At time of maturity, you will get the full amount of your original deposit regardless of the performance of the underlying market index or securities. If you choose to sell your market-linked CD prior to maturity on the secondary market, there is no guarantee that you will get the full amount of your principal back.

Cons of Market-Linked CDs

Investors must also consider the risks associated with holding market-linked CDs.

•   Liquidity risk: Investors must be aware that when opening a market-linked CD, they are locking up their money for a period of time, and they must be willing to hold on to the CD through its maturity to achieve the full benefits, even though they are not obligated to do so. If you need access to the capital in the CD and want to withdraw money, you may incur withdrawal fees.

•   Market risk: Market-linked CDs that are linked to the equity markets are subject to volatility, which can impact the market-linked CD returns. Other factors can influence market-linked CDs such as changes in interest rates.

•   Taxes: MLCD earnings are taxed as interest income, not as capital gains, and thus investors will pay a higher rate for their earnings. Also, interest must be reported annually, even though it’s not paid until maturity.

•   Little or no profit: The worst scenario is holding a market-linked CD to maturity — but not making a profit. Even though your original principal will be protected, there is no guarantee that you will make more than your deposit amount.

   You may have the possibility of greater gains if you invest your money in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) or index fund directly, which provides similar diversification benefits. However, you are still exposed to market risk, and your original principal is at risk.

How to Open a Market-Linked CD

•   At the financial institution of your choosing, you can open a market-linked certificate of deposit by choosing the interest rate and maturity date.

•   Next, deposit the amount of money you are able to lock up for a period of time.

•   Some market-linked CDs have a minimum investment requirement and a maximum deposit limit per account which must be considered.

Alternatives to a Market-Linked CD

Alternatives to market-linked CDs could include dividend-paying stocks. There are some publicly traded companies that pay out a portion of their profits to shareholders in the form of dividends. This can be consistent and reliable income, and can provide higher yield compared to that of a market-linked CD.

Another option could be investing in a bond fund. Similar to a CD, bond funds have different maturity dates, either short term or long term, and can offer competitive yields. Depending on the creditworthiness of the bonds, the yield can vary. Bonds with a high credit rating which are lower risk may have a lower yield than bonds with a lower credit rating, but the latter may come with higher risk. The choice of bond fund depends on the investor’s risk tolerance.

Investors may also consider a high-yield savings account, which is lower risk but yields less than a market-linked CD. These types of accounts are more for emergency funds but if you are looking for the lower risk options to store your cash, high yield savings accounts can be another alternative to a market-linked CD.

When to Consider Investing in Market-Linked CDs

Investors may be interested in a market-linked CD if they are looking for an alternative for a traditional CD and for the potential for higher returns. Market-linked CDs may also offer some diversification, and protection of principal investment.

If you are looking for exposure to the broader stock market with managed risk, a marked-linked CD may be a suitable option because it’s viewed as an alternative to directly investing in the stock market. That said, market-linked CDs are insured products and are not considered securities.

The Takeaway

Market-linked CDs are, as the name implies, a sort of hybrid savings/investment option. They offer some of the features of traditional CDs: You invest your money for a fixed period of time; if you withdraw funds before the maturity date you face an early withdrawal penalty; and your funds are federally insured for up to $250,000.

Because MLCDs are market-linked, though, a CD’s performance is tied to underlying securities or a market index. Thus investors don’t receive a fixed interest rate, and returns can fluctuate. Typically these CDs are also capped in terms of the gains they can provide. And while an investor’s initial principal deposit is protected from a market drop, you can still lose money if you withdraw funds early or try to sell this type of CD on the secondary market. Finally, like any other investment in the markets, there’s no guarantee that a market-linked CD will see a profit by the time it matures.

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What is a market-linked CD?

Market-linked CDs are certificates of deposits that can be linked to stocks, commodities, an index — or a mix of these — depending on the type of return the investor is seeking, and their risk tolerance.

Is a market-linked CD a security?

No. A market-linked CD is federally insured in the event of bank failure or fraud, so your principal is protected up to $250,000. Insured products are not considered securities.

What is a stock market CD?

A stock market CD is another name for a market-linked CD, and is linked to a broad stock market index like the S&P 500. This means the CD’s performance will adjust as the index changes.

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