The Ins and Outs of Bond Yield

Step 1: What Determines the Return on My Bond?

The Ins And Outs Of Bond Yield Splash image

Let us assume that you are reading the financial pages of your favorite newspaper. You read that even though stock returns have been dismal for the last two years, bond returns have been very good. In fact, you read that over the past two years, many bond funds returned well over 15%. While the returns look pretty darn good relative to stocks, you may wonder: Does that mean I can expect to earn 15% next year if I buy bonds? If the answer is not obvious, read on.

A strong market for bonds is one in which interest rates are declining. That causes bond prices to go up. A weak bond market is one in which interest rates are going up. That causes bond prices to decline. Clearly, then, since changes in interest rate levels affect bond prices, they also affect what you earn from investments in bonds.

Classroom Steps

But that is only the beginning. In order to understand what you actually earn from bonds, you need to understand two different concepts: yield and total return.

When you buy an individual bond, you can expect to receive coupon payments (usually every six months) for most bonds and the par value of the bond upon maturity. When you buy a bond fund, you can expect a monthly payout of the income earned by the bond fund. That stream of income is variously described as the bond's "yield." But you also have to bear in mind that when you sell your bond (or bond fund), you may sell at a higher or at a lower price than the price you paid. That difference can be an additional source of earnings, or it may result in a loss. That change in price is one of the main factors that determines a bond's total return.

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