Bond Market: What It Is and Why It Matters

The bond market is where forms of debt trade, and it’s one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the world.
Alieza Durana
By Alieza Durana 
Published
Edited by Chris Davis

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Nerdy takeaways
  • When you buy a bond, you loan a government or corporation money in exchange for regular interest payments.

  • Bond markets have existed for thousands of years for people to issue, buy and sell these loans.

  • Bonds can be a lower-risk way to generate regular income and limit tax liability.

MORE LIKE THISInvestingBonds

A bond is a loan to a company or government that pays a fixed rate of return. Investors buy and sell bonds and other debt securities in the bond market. Securities are tradable assets, and debt securities include tradable debt with set terms between the borrower and lender, such as Treasury bills, notes and bonds. Bonds and debt securities vary in terms — how long you hold them — and risks.

What is the bond market?

The bond market includes new debt on the primary market and repackaged debt traded on the secondary market. So, if you don’t want to keep your bond until it matures — meaning you don’t want to hold it for its full duration or life — you can sell it early on the secondary market. But remember, there’s no guarantee that you’ll make back your original investment on the secondary market.

Loans and bond markets have existed in some form for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). The British monarchy used bonds to fund their colonization efforts, and a young U.S. government used bonds to raise funds for the Revolutionary War and again during World War I through Liberty Bonds.

The U.S. accounts for more than one-third of the world bond market

World Economic Forum. Ranked: The largest bond markets in the world. Accessed Jan 30, 2024.
, and, in 2022, the global bond market was about 25% bigger than the global equity (or stock) market.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Christian and Islamic laws have deemed lending unlawful at different points in history. Investors who take a halal approach to investing still exclude bonds from their portfolio since charging interest is considered exploitative. Learn more about halal investing.

Key terms

Definitions

Annual coupon payment

The total investment interest payment over one year.

Coupon payment frequency

How often investment interest payments are made.

Discount price

The price of the bond if it falls below face value.

Face value

The price of the bond if held to maturity.

Interest rate

The amount a lender charges a borrower to loan them money.

Price

What investors will pay for a bond, which is affected by the economic environment.

Years to maturity

Length of time to bond maturity.

Yield to maturity

The total investment return if a bond is held to maturity.

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Benefits and risks of investing in bonds

One advantage of bonds is that they can offer a regular and immediate source of income through interest payments. Investment-grade bonds usually offer lower risks and returns than higher-risk investments like stocks.

Investing your money across a range of assets that aren’t typically affected by the same factors in the same way is a strategy called diversification. Since bonds and stocks tend to perform differently, they are used to balance each other out in financial portfolios. Adding more bonds and fewer stocks to your portfolio is a common rebalancing strategy used as people age or approach a financial goal.

Still, bonds vary in the risks they carry. They come in a range of terms from less than a year to up to 30 years. The bond issuer’s creditworthiness — be it a corporation or government — reflects its risk of default. This is known as credit risk.

Interest rates also affect bond prices, as they did in 2022. Raising interest rates to counteract inflation, as the Federal Reserve did in 2022, can push the value of bonds down. This is known as interest rate risk.

Types of bonds

U.S. government, corporate and municipal bonds are three of the most common types of bonds you can invest in. Others include international bonds, emerging market bonds and mortgage-backed securities. The costs, risks and barriers to getting started vary by debt security.

  • U.S. government bonds: Treasury bills, Treasury notes and Treasury bonds are three types of low-risk investments that offer tax advantages. U.S. Treasury bills and notes are considered the benchmark for a “risk-free” investment. Treasury bills mature in less than a year, while notes mature in two to five, and bonds in 20 or 30 years.

  • Municipal bonds, or munis, fund public projects such as building bridges, roads or schools. They attract investors to their tax-free status. 

  • Corporate bonds help fund U.S. corporations' day-to-day operations and expansion. Investment-grade corporate bonds are riskier than Treasurys or municipal bonds, but still less so than stocks.

U.S. Treasury bills, notes and bonds can be purchased from the government at TreasuryDirect.gov in increments of $100. However, investing in enough single bonds to have a truly diversified portfolio across municipal, corporate and other types of bonds can be costly.

Bond index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can offer a more affordable way to invest. They are bundles of investments that mirror particular bond indexes or bond markets. Since you’re investing in a group of bonds rather than a single bond, bond funds offer immediate diversification. Remember, index funds can have high minimum investments, whereas with ETFs, you can buy for the price of a single share.

» Learn more about the best-performing bond ETFs

🤓Nerdy Tip

Did you know that the credit market is another name for the bond market? As confusing as it is for debt and credit to be used interchangeably, bonds and bank loans make up the credit market.

Bond market vs. stock market

While a bond represents a loan, stocks represent an ownership stake in a company. Generally, stocks offer higher risks in return for higher rewards. The average annualized long-term return of U.S. government bonds is around 6%, whereas stocks have historically earned an average return of 10%

. However, these are historical averages and do not account for inflation.

» Learn more about bonds vs. stocks

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when you open and fund a J.P. Morgan Self-Directed Investing account with qualifying new money.

Where can I learn more about specific bonds?

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) regulates bonds and reports trading prices and volumes on their Trade Reporting And Compliance Engine (TRACE).

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