How Investment Grade Bonds Can Help You Avoid Credit Losses

New Investors Should Choose Safety Over Yield When Buying a Bond

Investment Grade Bonds and Portfolio Risk
When buying bonds, it's almost always better to choose quality over a higher yield. The role of them in most portfolio is just about preserving your money as it is generating interest income. westphalia / E+ / Getty Images

Domestic bonds have a reputation for safety (not so for foreign bonds) but investing in bonds is not without danger.  You can lose money if you aren’t careful.  Inflation risk, interest rate risk, credit risk.  These are all real dangers.  In this article, I want to talk to you about the latter: Credit risk.

Famed value investor and father of security analysis Benjamin Graham was fond of saying, “More money has been lost reaching for a little extra yield [on a bond investment] than taken at the barrel of a gun”.

 Sometimes this comes from venturing out too long a maturity profile, increasing bond duration.  More often, it happens that inexperienced investors see the eye-popping yields available on so-called junk bonds, noticing only the high-interest rates they pay without considering the correspondingly high probabilities of default (read: not getting your money back on the date the bond matures and, instead, potentially receiving notification the business has filed for bankruptcy).  Often, they’d be better off buying a conservative bond fund or bond index fund that 1.) uses no leverage, and 2.) operates at a low cost.  By the time they learn this less, it's too late.  People have a mysterious tendency to throw their hard-earned money into things they can't describe to a third grader, which is usually a red flag.  This is so common, I only half-jokingly refer to it as the refrigerator problem following a study that showed the typical household spent more time choosing a new appliance than they did planning for their retirement.

 Just look at what happened with auction rate securities back in 2008-2009.  Otherwise, intelligent men and women, some of whom had net worths in the hundreds of millions of dollars, were shocked when they couldn't liquidate their holdings for weeks, in many cases, months.

To increase your odds of successfully protecting your family’s money while generating passive income from bonds, you need to know how credit quality works; specifically, how bond rating agencies classify bonds based on the chance the issuer will default, missing an interest or principal payment.

When Investing in Bonds, Credit Risk Refers to the Chance You Might Not Get the Interest You Were Promised, or Be Repaid the Principal You Loaned the Issuer, Either On Time or in Whole or Part

First, let’s back up for a moment.  Whether you are lending money to a friend or to a Fortune 500 corporation, there is a risk that the funds won’t be repaid.  That is life.  Unexpected things happen.  There is no avoiding this.  For that reason, the stronger the income statementbalance sheet, and cash flow statement of the borrower, the lower the interest rate you are likely to demand as you know there is less chance you will be left high and dry.  This relationship generally holds true regardless of all other factors, in high-interest rate environments and low-interest rate environments.

For municipal bonds, there are several tests of safety you can run to protect your investment.  For corporate bonds, you can calculate the credit quality of companies using your own efforts by going through the financial statements and working out things such as the interest coverage ratio or fixed payment coverage ratio.  These let you know how much revenue a firm could lose before it was in danger of not generating enough cash to send you what it had promised.

 Alternatively, you can pull up the credit ratings for a specific bond from a firm such as Standard and Poor’s, Moody, or Fitch.  These enterprises employ hundreds of analysts who do nothing but calculate such numbers day-in and day-out, assigning a letter grade much like the ones you’d receive on a spelling test in elementary school.  Despite some high-profile failures, especially during the sub-prime crisis, the bond rating agencies have generally done a good job predicting default rates through credit ratings.

Each mainline rating agency is the largely the same in terms of outcome and methodology but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to rely on Standard and Poor’s ranking system.  S&P divides bonds into “investment grade” and “non-investment grade” using unique letter grades (see below).

 Note that parts of these definitions have been taken as almost direct quotes from S&P’s own literature with formatting slightly changed to make it easier for a new bond investor to understand.

Standard and Poor's Investment Grade Bond Ratings

Investment grade bonds are considered safer than other bonds because the resources of the issuers are sufficient to indicate a good capacity to repay obligations.  Many regulations and laws in the United States specifically require institutions and plans with fiduciary obligations, such as insurance companies and pension funds, to invest solely or primarily in investment grade bonds.  Bank trust departments, by way of example, are going to be invested almost exclusively in this arena.

  • AAA = Extremely strong capacity to meet financial commitments.
  • AA = Very strong capacity to meet financial commitments.
  • A = Strong capacity to meet financial commitments, but somewhat susceptible to adverse economic conditions and changes in circumstances.
  • BBB = Adequate capacity to meet financial commitments, but more subject to adverse economic conditions.

Standard and Poor's Non-Investment Grade Bond Ratings (aka “Junk Bonds)

Lower-quality bonds are inherently speculative.  There is a decent chance you may not get your principal or interest payments at all, in whole or part.  They are especially dangerous when acquired with borrowed money, as has been the fad recently with certain high yield bond funds that are attempting to make up for low-interest rates by artificially juicing returns.  It terrifies me the losses to which some investors have exposed themselves, thinking they're safe because the word "bond" is in the literature.

  • BB = Less vulnerable in the near-term but faces major ongoing uncertainties to adverse business, financial and economic conditions.
  • B = More vulnerable to adverse business, financial and economic conditions but currently has the capacity to meet financial commitments.
  • CCC = Currently vulnerable and dependent on favorable business, financial and economic conditions to meet financial commitments.
  • CC = Currently highly vulnerable.
  • C = Currently highly vulnerable obligations and other defined circumstances.
  • D = Payment default on financial commitments.

Both investment grade and non-investment grade bonds rated AAA through CCC can be modified with a plus (+) or minus (-) sign to indicate the relative ranking within its category.  For example, AAA+ is considered the highest quality investment grade bond while BBB- is considered the lowest quality investment grade bond.  Meanwhile, BB+ is considered the highest quality speculative, or junk, bond, while CCC- is considered the lowest quality speculative, or junk,bond.

If you see a bond rated “NR or NA”, that means “Not rated” or “not available”.  If you see a bond rated “WD” that means “Rating withdrawn”.  There are various reasons this may be the case but if you come across it, it’s probably best to avoid the security.  A primary rule of conservative investing is never acquiring something you don’t fully understand.  There are plenty of high-grade, investment quality bonds available (the bond market is significantly larger than the stock market in terms of aggregate value) so there’s no excuse to make things more complicated than they need to be.  This is one of those times when the "KISS" rule applies.

These bond ratings are an excellent predictor of bond credit risk.  It is relatively rare for an investment grade bond to fall into junk bond status (when this happens, the bond is referred to as a “fallen angel”).  As long as you have a strict policy of selling bonds that fall below your minimum acceptable rating requirement, even if it means triggering a capital loss, you can largely avoid the sorts of horrific experiences you see for people who buy things like penny stocks.  (And no, before you ask, investing in penny stocks is almost always a bad idea.)  To provide a real-world example of what that means in raw numbers, let’s look at a few historical time periods when the economy was in trouble.

Bond Default Rates During The Great Recession of 2009 - In the depth of the Great Recession in 2009, fueled by the sub-prime and real estate bubbles popping, Wall Street was imploding, ​Main Street was shedding jobs, and the economy was in a downward spiral.  That year, only 0.32% of all investment-grade bonds defaulted.  For the worst catastrophe since the Great Depression, that’s phenomenal.  Meanwhile, 9.6% of non-investment grade bonds defaulted that same year.  The higher interest income was illusionary.  You might have collected fatter checks for awhile but it came at a great cost, often turning momentary profits into losses.

Bond Default Rates During The September 11th, 2001 Crash - In 2001, with the national economy sent into a recession following the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., 0.23% of investment grade bonds defaulted compared to 9.77% of non-investment grade bonds.

Bond Default Rates During The Savings & Loan Crisis of 1991 - The recession and aftermath of the S&L crisis in the United States sent defaults on investment grade bonds to 0.14% and non-investment grade bonds to 11.05%.  The differential between those two numbers is incredible.

Given the rather stark performance gap between investment grade bonds and non-investment grade bonds, why do investors keep getting tempted to acquire risky fixed income holdings?  They see double-digit interest rate promises and get lulled into a false sense of security by years like 1983 when the default rate on investment grade bonds stood at 0.76% and a mere 2.93% on junk bonds.  When the economy is doing well, there is a natural human tendency to extrapolate that into the future and assume it is always going to be doing well.  It’s not that way, of course, and things go south, people lose a lot of money, and the cycle begins all over again.  This isn't to say intelligent, financially savvy specialists can't make money in junk bonds - they absolutely can - only it is the deep end of the pool and 99% of the population has no business swimming there.

What This Means for Average Bond Investors

The moral for the typical bond investor is: Unless you can evaluate individual securities for risk, stick entirely with investment grade bonds, preferably those rated A or higher.  Your yields will be substantially lower - at the time this article was published, a 10-year AA-rated corporate bond would produce a yield of 2.14% while CCC or lower bonds were yields almost between 9.57% and 10.00% - but you are far more likely to actually avoid losses caused by a counterparty default.  If you’re going to take that sort of risk, there are often far more intelligent ways to do it.  Do not be seduced.  Look at those deceptive interest checks and think of them like the Sirens from Greek mythology, luring sailors to their deaths with beauty and song.  It’s a trap.  Don’t fall for it.