Tax Treatment of Bonds and How It Differs From Stocks

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Bonds can be an important part of your financial plan, but as with all investments, there's the matter of taxes. And when it comes to taxes, bonds can be a little more complicated than other investment options.

Most investors buy bonds for two basic reasons. First, as debt securities, they are often safer than stocks if you need to protect the principal in the event of a bankruptcy or default. Second, they provide a consistent and predictable stream of interest income. 

As a result, bonds can provide some stability for your portfolio to counter the volatility of stocks, while still generating income.

Key Takeaways

  • Stocks and their dividends receive special tax treatment, but bonds do not.
  • Interest from U.S. Treasury bonds is subject to federal but not state or local taxes.
  • Buying municipal bonds from your state or locality can allow you to avoid paying federal, state, and local tax on the interest income.
  • You pay tax on corporate bonds, but if they're in a retirement account you won't pay it until you take withdrawals.

Do Bonds Have Special Tax Treatment?

Investors don’t typically look to bonds to outperform stocks, although this happens from time to time (and many an experienced bond trader would beg to differ). However, most investors see the function of maintaining bonds in their portfolio as a way to help achieve stability and income.

Then there's the tax issue. If you own stocks, you don’t pay taxes on their growth until you sell them, and then you're only taxed at the capital gains rate. Even dividends receive special tax treatment. But that's not the case with bonds.

How Are Different Types of Bonds Taxed?

Typically, you will receive income from bonds twice a year. This means they can have immediate tax consequences. Here’s how the tax situation breaks down per bond type:

  • U.S. Treasury issues are notes and bills that generate a federal income tax liability. They aren't subject to state or local income taxes.
  • Municipal bonds (sometimes known as "munis") are tax-free at the federal level. If you buy them in the state where you live, they can be free of state and local taxes as well. These are sometimes called “triple free" for that reason.
  • Corporate bonds have no tax-free provisions. You will pay taxes on any earnings from these debt securities. However, if they're held in a retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA, you won't owe tax on their earnings until you withdraw them in retirement.

Zero-coupon bonds have specific tax implications. These securities are sold at a deep discount and pay no annual interest. The full face value is paid at maturity, but there's a catch. The IRS computes the "implied" annual interest on the bond, and you're liable for that amount even though you don’t receive it until the bond matures. Yes, you read that correctly. You're taxed now on the income you haven't received yet and might not receive for years to come.

If you buy municipal zero-coupon bonds in the state where you live, you won't have to pay tax on this "phantom" interest.

Taxes on Municipal Bonds vs. Stocks

There's a quick way to look at how a municipal bond compares with a stock on an after-tax basis. You can compute the taxable equivalent of a municipal bond’s return using this formula:

  • Figure your marginal tax rate, which is what you'll pay on the next dollar of income you earn.
  • Subtract it from 1.
  • Then divide a muni yield by the result to get the taxable equivalent.

For example, if you're going to be in the 24% tax bracket, and you're considering a muni with a yield of 2.8%, the calculation would look like this:

0.028 / (1 – 0.24) = 3.68%

This muni would give you the same effective return as taxable security that pays about 3.68%. If you figure in state and local taxes, it could push your taxable equivalent return even higher.

This calculation lets you know whether a municipal bond is a smart investment compared to a given stock.

In the long term, stocks outperform bonds, but that doesn't mean your portfolio should contain only stocks. Bonds provide a level of diversification that can cushion your assets, and your future income, during changes in the market.

If you're looking for relatively secure income at a reasonable return, municipal bonds are worth a look for their tax benefits. Depending on your goals, you may find a place for them in your portfolio as part of a diversification strategy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much tax do you pay on savings bonds?

Interest on savings bonds is subject to federal income tax at your regular income tax rate. It may also be subject to gift or estate taxes. However, if you use the income for qualified educational expenses, you might not have to pay tax on it.

How do I report bonds on my tax return?

If you have interest from savings bonds, you should receive Form 1099-INT, which states how much interest income you had for the year. You will report this in the income section of your tax return.

Article Sources

  1. Investor.gov. "Risk and Return."

  2. Treasury Direct. "Treasury Notes: Tax Considerations."

  3. Fidelity. "Tax Implications of Bonds and Bond Funds."

  4. Investor.gov. "Zero Coupon Bond."

  5. Treasury Direct. "Education Planning."