In this section, we briefly look at bonds issued by governments and also at bonds with unusual features.
The biggest borrower in the world—by a wide margin—is everybody’s favorite family member, Uncle Sam. In early 2014, the total debt of the U.S. government was $17.5 trillion, or about $55,000 per citizen (and growing!). When the government wishes to borrow money for more than one year, it sells what are known as Treasury notes and bonds to the public (in fact, it does so every month). Currently, outstanding Treasury notes and bonds have original maturities ranging from 2 to 30 years.
Most U.S. Treasury issues are just ordinary coupon bonds. There are two important things to keep in mind, however. First, U.S. Treasury issues, unlike essentially all other bonds, have no default risk because (we hope) the Treasury can always come up with the money to make the payments. Second, Treasury issues are exempt from state income taxes (though not federal income taxes). In other words, the coupons you receive on a Treasury note or bond are taxed only at the federal level.
For information on municipal bonds including prices, check out emma.msrb.org.
State and local governments also borrow money by selling notes and bonds. Such issues are called municipal notes and bonds, or just “munis.” Unlike Treasury issues, munis have varying degrees of default risk, and, in fact, they are rated much like corporate issues. Also, they are almost always callable. The most intriguing thing about munis is that their coupons are exempt from federal income taxes (though not necessarily state income taxes), which makes them very attractive to high-income, high–tax bracket investors.
The conventional bonds we have talked about in this chapter have fixed-dollar obligations because the coupon rates are set as fixed percentages of the par values. Similarly, the principal amounts are set equal to the par values. Under these circumstances, the coupon payments and principal are completely fixed.
OTHER TYPES OF BONDS
Many bonds have unusual or exotic features. So-called catastrophe, or cat, bonds provide an interesting example. In August 2013, Northshore Re Limited, a reinsurance company, issued $200 million in cat bonds (reinsurance companies sell insurance to insurance companies). These cat bonds covered hurricanes and earthquakes in the U.S. In the event of one of these triggering events, Northshore Re would receive cash flows to offset its loss.
The largest single cat bond issue to date is a series of six bonds sold by Merna Reinsurance in 2007. The six bond issues were to cover various catastrophes the company faced due to its reinsurance of State Farm. The six bonds totaled about $1.2 billion in par value. During 2013, about $7.6 billion in cat bonds were issued, and there was about $20.6 billion par value in cat bonds outstanding at the end of the year.
ncome bonds are similar to conventional bonds, except that coupon payments depend on company income. Specifically, coupons are paid to bondholders only if the firm’s income is sufficient. This would appear to be an attractive feature, but income bonds are not very common.
A convertible bond can be swapped for a fixed number of shares of stock anytime before maturity at the holder’s option. Convertibles are relatively common, but the number has been decreasing in recent years.
A put bond allows the holder to force the issuer to buy back the bond at a stated price. For example, International Paper Co. has bonds outstanding that allow the holder to force International Paper to buy the bonds back at 100 percent of face value if certain “risk” events happen. One such event is a change in credit rating from investment grade to lower than investment grade by Moody’s or S&P. The put feature is therefore just the reverse of the call provision.
The reverse convertible is a relatively new type of structured note. One type generally offers a high coupon rate, but the redemption at maturity can be paid in cash at par value or paid in shares of stock. For example, one recent General Motors (GM) reverse convertible had a coupon rate of 16 percent, which is a very high coupon rate in today’s interest rate environment. However, at maturity, if GM’s stock declined sufficiently, bondholders would receive a fixed number of GM shares that were worth less than par value. So, while the income portion of the bond return would be high, the potential loss in par value could easily erode the extra return.
Perhaps the most unusual bond (and certainly the most ghoulish) is the “death bond.” Companies such as Stone Street Financial purchase life insurance policies from individuals who are expected to die within the next 10 years.