Fixed Income Explanation, Types, and Impact on Economy

Why People Buy Fixed Income Invesments

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Fixed income is an investment that returns a payment to you on a regular schedule. The most common are pensions, bonds, and loans. Fixed income also includes certificates of deposit, savings accounts, money market funds, and annuities. You can also invest in fixed income securities with bond mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and fixed income derivatives

Demand for fixed income investments skyrocketed after the 2008 recession. That's because the Federal Reserve's expansionary monetary policy kept interest rates at a record low for seven long years. Risk-averse investors shifted more of their portfolios to fixed income products. They needed to maintain payments at the same level. 

Types of Fixed Income

There are four broad categories of fixed income investments. Short-term products return a low rate, but you only tie up your money for a few months at most. Long-term products pay a higher rate, but you must leave your money invested for years.

Derivatives are synthetic products. They derive their value from underlying short or long-term products. They have the most potential return because you invest less of your money. But if they lose money, you could lose much more than your initial investment. Third-party fixed-income payments are guaranteed.

Short-term: The interest rates on these accounts are based on the fed funds rate, or equivalent Treasury bill rates of four years or less. When the fed funds rate was lowered to zero in 2008, these products earned super-low interest rates. To gain a higher yield, individual investors shifted from short-term to longer-term investments. Businesses use short-term loans to cover the cash flow needed to pay for day-to-day operations.

Savings Accounts: The bank pays you a fixed rate of interest, based on the fed funds rate. You can add or withdraw whenever you like.

Money Market Accounts: The bank pays you a slightly higher fixed rate of interest. In return, you must keep a minimum amount deposited. You are limited in the number of transactions you can make in a year.

Certificates of Deposit: You must keep your money invested for an agreed-upon period to get the promised rate of return. 

Money Market Funds: These are mutual funds that invest in a variety of short-term investments. You get paid a fixed rate based on short-term securities. These included Treasury bills, federal agency notes, and Eurodollar deposits. They also included repurchase agreements, certificates of deposit, and corporate commercial paper. They are also based on obligations of states, cities, or other types of municipal agencies. 

Short-term Bond Funds: These mutual funds invest in one-year to four-year low-risk bonds. Most of their holdings are corporate bonds.

Long-Term: The interest rates on these accounts follow Treasury notes and bonds. The rate depends on the duration of the bond. 

Individual Bonds: This is how organizations get substantial loans. Unlike loans, bonds can be bought or sold like any security. When stock prices go up, bond prices go down. Bonds are lower return and lower risk than stocks. Investors buy them when they want to avoid risk.

There are many different types of bonds. The safest are issued by the government. The most popular are U.S. Treasury notes and bonds ($10.4 trillion outstanding). Next are municipal bonds ($3.8 trillion outstanding), and savings bonds. Since they're the safest, they offer the lowest fixed income.

Many investors turned to corporate bonds that offer a higher rate. There are currently $8.1 trillion in these bonds outstanding. Companies sell them when they need cash but don't want to issue stocks. 

There are two hybrids of corporate bonds and stocks. Preferred stocks pay a regular dividend, even though they are a type of stock. Convertible bonds are bonds that can be converted to stocks. Stocks that pay regular dividends are often substituted for fixed income bonds. Although they are not technically fixed income, portfolio managers often treat them as such.

Eurobonds is the common name for Eurodollar bonds. They are corporate bonds issued in euros instead of their own country's currency or U.S. dollars. 

Bond Mutual Funds: These are mutual funds that own a large number of bonds. That allows the individual investor to gain the benefits of owning bonds without the hassle of buying and selling them. Mutual funds grant greater diversification than most investors could obtain on their own. 

Exchange Traded Funds: Bond ETFs are popular because they have low costs. They merely track the performance of a bond index, instead of active management like a mutual fund.

Fixed Income Derivatives:  These financial products derive their value from underlying bonds. Sophisticated investors, companies, and financial firms use them to hedge against losses.

  • Options give a buyer the right, but not the obligation, to trade a bond at a certain price on an agreed-upon future date. The right to buy a bond is called a call option. The right to sell a bond is the put option. They are traded on a regulated exchange. 
  • Futures contracts are like options, except they bind participants to execute the trade. They are traded on an exchange.
  • Forward contracts are like futures contracts, except they are not traded on an exchange. Instead, they are traded Over the Counter, either between the two parties directly or through a bank. They are often very customized to the particular needs of the two parties.
  • Mortgage-backed securities derive their value from bundles of home loans. Like a bond, they offer a rate of return based on the value of the underlying assets.
  • Collateralized debt obligations base their value on auto loans and credit card debt. Sometimes they use bundles of corporate bonds for their value.
  • Asset-backed commercial paper are one-year corporate bond packages. They are based on underlying commercial assets. These include real estate, corporate auto fleets, or other business property.
  • Interest rate swaps are contracts that allow bondholders to swap their future interest rate payments. These are between a holder of a fixed-interest bond and one holding a flexible-interest bond. They trade Over The Counter. Swaptions are options on an underlying interest rate swap. They are a derivative based on a derivative. They should only be used to speculate about interest rate movements.
  • Total return swaps are like interest rate swaps, except the payments are based on bonds. They can also derive their value from a bond index, an equity index, or a bundle of loans. 

Third-Party Fixed Income Payment Streams: Some fixed income streams don't depend on the value of an investment. Instead, the payment is guaranteed by a third party.

Social Security: Fixed payments available after a certain age.  It's guaranteed by the federal government and is calculated based on payroll taxes you've paid. It's managed by the Social Security Trust Fund.

Pensions: Fixed payments guaranteed by your employer, based on the number of years you worked and your salary. Companies, unions, and governments use pension funds to make sure there's enough to make the payments. As more workers retire, fewer companies are offering this benefit. 

Fixed-Rate Annuities: An insurance product that guarantees you a fixed payment over an agreed-upon period. These are increasing since fewer workers receive pensions.

How Fixed Income Affects the U.S. Economy

Fixed income provides most of the liquidity that keeps the U.S. economy humming.  Businesses go to the bond market to raise funds to grow. They use money market instruments to get the cash needed for day-to-day operations. Here's what happened when there was a run on those money markets.

Treasury bills, notes, and bonds help set interest rates. How? When demand for Treasury bonds falls, yields rise. Investors then demand higher interest rates on similar fixed-income investments. That send rates higher on auto, school, and home loans.

Low-interest rates might trigger inflation. That's because there's too much liquidity chasing too few goods. If inflation doesn't show up in consumer spending, it might create asset bubbles in investments.

You can also use Treasury yields to predict the future. For example, an inverted yield curve usually heralds a recession. When that happens, it has the same effect on mortgage interest rates. It affects demand for real estate, which supports 6 percent of the economy. Bonds affect mortgage interest rates because they are competing with the same investors. When bond rates fall, then mortgage rates must too.

The demand for Treasury notes is one also of the three factors that affect the value of the dollar. That's because both are seen as safe haven investments, and tend to rise and fall together. But sometimes the expectation of high-interest rates will drive up demand for the dollar.