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Market View

Bonds trading above par value may present the opportunity to achieve attractive income with lower interest-rate risk than at- or below-par issues.


In Brief

  • Information on a bond’s price alone is insufficient in determining its relative attractiveness, in our view.
  • Premium bonds may offer a higher cash flow than similar at-par or discount-to-par bonds.
  • Also, premium bonds with higher coupons may be less sensitive to changes in interest rates than similar bonds with lower coupons, and thus lower prices.
  • Bonds trading at a premium may actually gain in price before they head towards par value as they near maturity—a phenomenon that active managers may be well suited to exploit.


Individual bond investors have often expressed reservations and reluctance with respect to the purchase of bonds trading at a price above par value.  With that in mind, this Market View will address five important considerations for those investors who might still be wary of premium bonds:  

1.  For bonds, we believe it’s better to analyze the yield, not the price.

While many retail investors tend to focus on a bond’s price, portfolio managers are at times more inclined to consider a mosaic of data including coupon, time to maturity, duration, credit spread, and most important, yield, when determining the relative attractiveness of a bond. Table 1 shows how all those factors come into play:


Table 1. Price Points: Attributes of Three Hypothetical Bonds Trading Above, At, and Below Par

Source: Lord Abbett. This hypothetical example is for illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific account managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment.  


It’s important for investors to realize that a bond’s yield to maturity (YTM) represents the expected return (expressed as an annualized rate) from the bond’s future cash flows, including coupon payments over the life of the bond and the bond’s principal value received at maturity.YTM is a useful, standardized barometer that can help investors compare their investment options. What makes it more informative than looking at price alone is that yield to maturity considers both the time value of money and the bond’s current price.  Taking all this into account, Table 1 demonstrates that three hypothetical bonds with the same credit rating and time to maturity can have different prices (i.e. discount to par, par, or premium to par) and yet have the same yields. In this example, the dollar price is simply a function of the size of the coupon.

Given the choice between the three, an individual investor following the simplistic, but logical mantra “buy low, sell high,” may choose the discount bond with the rationale being, “I have the opportunity to receive price appreciation from discount to par.” While this is true (assuming the bond doesn’t default), the price of 87 is already factored into the yield to maturity calculation, and thus the investor’s return. If the bond is held to maturity, its return should be similar to that of the bond priced at 117, given that it shares the same YTM.

However, the source of that return would differ. The discount bond would see more return come from price appreciation, while the premium bond would generate more return from income. As we’ll see later, a portfolio manager may actually prefer the premium bond given its lower interest rate sensitivity and higher cash flow.

2.  Premium bonds may provide higher cash flow.

Similar bonds (i.e. similar yields, credit risk, liquidity risk, time to maturity) with differing prices will have differing coupons and thus, differing cash flows.  Recognizing that a bond’s price is the present value of its future cash flows, a higher coupon will translate to a higher price.


Coupon is the interest rate on a bond that is expressed at the bond’s face value, or par.

Duration is a measure of the sensitivity of a bond’s price to changes in interest rates.

Maturity is a bond’s term. When it matures, the bond holder will receive its principal and final interest payment.

Par is the face value of a bond, usually $1,000, which is returned to bond investors at maturity.

Price refers to the price of a bond, which is expressed as a percentage of par. Most bonds are issued in increments of $1,000.

The time value of money is the concept that money available at the present time is worth more than the identical sum in the future.

A yield curve is a line that plots the interest rates, at a set point in time, of bonds having equal credit quality, but differing maturity dates.

Yield curve roll down is an investment strategy for maturing bonds which potentially allows investors to capitalize on a bond's falling yield, and rising price, as it nears maturity.

Yield to maturity (YTM) is the potential rate of return on a fixed-income instrument if it is held until maturity. The yield-to-maturity calculation referenced also assumes that all coupons are reinvested at the prevailing market yield.

3.  They may also offer lower duration …

Since higher coupon bonds provide a higher cash flow relative to similar, lower coupon bonds, higher-coupon bonds generally have a lower duration, and thus exhibit lower sensitivity to changes in interest rates.

4.  … and the potential for price appreciation.

There may be a general misconception among some investors that bonds trading above par have only one path to follow in terms of price, that is, down towards par. While a bond’s price will ultimately amortize back towards par value at maturity (the so-called “pull to par”), its price can fluctuate down or up between the time of purchase and maturity.  This price appreciation can be the result of an upgrade in credit quality, a change in interest rates, or from the effects of what is known as a yield curve roll down.

For example, a bond trading with a coupon that is higher than the prevailing market rate for such a bond will be trading at a premium. Given an upward sloping yield curve, as time passes and the bond’s time to maturity shortens, the prevailing market rate will continue to decline, while the bond’s coupon will remain constant, further increasing the spread between coupon and market yields. The bond’s yield must adjust (decline) to align with prevailing market yields, and thus its price must adjust higher. From another perspective, investors would pay a premium for a bond with a coupon that is above market rates. This higher cash outlay lowers the yield to that of market yields.   

Since a bond’s price represents the present value of its future cash flows, as discussed, eventually, as the bond matures further, the number of expected coupon payments falls low enough to cause the bond’s price to decline to par. However, to reiterate an earlier point, the bond’s yield at the time of initial purchase has already taken into account this amortization to par value; therefore, this decline in price shouldn’t be viewed as a “loss,” because it isn’t one.  

Thus far, we have made the assumption that bonds will always be held to maturity. Active managers, however, can seek to capitalize on the effects of bond’s “rolling down the yield curve” as time passes and bonds progress towards their maturity dates (see Chart 1). Portfolio managers may maximize price appreciation potential by investing in bonds on the steepest parts of the yield curve and subsequently selling those bonds to capture the highest premium; they may then reinvest the proceeds in another bond in a similar fashion.


Chart 1. How Active Strategies Might Capitalize on Changes in Bond Premiums


Source: Lord Abbett. Chart depicts a theoretical scenario of changes to a bond’s price over time, assuming an upward sloping yield curve.  Past performance is not a reliable indicator or guarantee of future results. For illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific portfolio managed by Lord Abbett or any particular investment. 


5.  For municipal bond investors, premium bonds may offer tax and liquidity benefits.

There is another consideration specific to municipal bonds that investors need to know. If a tax-free bond’s price trades below a certain discount threshold, the buyer is required to pay ordinary income tax (versus capital gains) on any price appreciation due to the “de minimus rule.” Discount and par bonds are more likely to be subject to this rule than bonds trading at a premium to par value. In fact, the discount bond may actually trade down even further; boosting its yield, in order to compensate investors for this tax liability and offer a comparable after-tax yield to maturity relative to other bonds in the market. Therefore premium bonds may offer investors better price stability, as well as liquidity, while avoiding this additional tax burden.  

Summing Up
There are numerous factors that can affect performance in the fixed-income markets. A disciplined approach to fixed-income investing involves a detailed analysis that not only accounts for the price of a bond but also includes yield to maturity, coupon, and duration, among other factors. A single-minded focus on the price of a fixed-income security at the expense of those other considerations may deprive investors of the chance to participate in the potential for attractive income and return offered by some premium bonds.


1 While yield to maturity is an important factor for non-callable bonds, yield to worst should be considered for callable bonds.



  Market View

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