What Are Junk Bonds And How Are They Different?

What Are Junk Bonds And How Are They Different?

The global bond market is a highly diverse place where investors can come across fixed-income securities of varying principal sizes, maturity dates, credit ratings, etc. 

Among these different characteristics, credit rating is one of the most important and influential ones that largely shapes investor sentiment towards a particular security. 

Credit rating agencies carefully assess the financial health of the issuer, as well as the multitude of factors that could negatively affect their standings over the duration of the bond, and come up with a rating that classifies the bond as either investment-grade, or junk bond. 

Junk bonds are bonds with low ratings that carry a considerable risk of default and investing in them is highly speculative. 

Junk bonds are also known as high-yield bonds, because they offer higher coupon rates to make up for the high degree of risk that comes with these investments. 

If you are a beginner investor and would like to know more about what junk bonds are and how they work, this Investfox guide can help. 

How Do Junk Bonds Work?

In terms of their structure, junk bonds are practically indistinguishable from any other bond. However, the difference is the financial health of the issuer. Often, junk bonds are issued by distressed companies in an effort to get some financing and try to turn their fortunes around. 

This leads to a lower than average score from credit rating agencies.

Typically, these are the credit scores awarded to junk bonds:

  • BB or Ba: Bonds rated "BB" by Standard & Poor's (S&P) or "Ba" by Moody's are considered the upper end of the junk bond spectrum. While they are non-investment grade, they are considered to have a relatively lower risk of default compared to lower-rated junk bonds
  • B: Bonds rated "B" by S&P or Moody's are further down the non-investment grade scale. They carry a higher risk of default than BB-rated bonds but often offer higher yields to compensate for the increased risk
  • CCC or Caa: Bonds rated "CCC" by S&P or "Caa" by Moody's are at the lower end of the junk bond category. They are considered highly speculative and are associated with a significant risk of default. These bonds typically offer the highest yields but come with the greatest risk
  • D: A "D" rating from both S&P and Moody's indicates that the issuer has already defaulted on its debt obligations or is in imminent danger of default

Characteristics Of Junk Bonds

While most junk bonds are quite similar to any other bond on the market, there are some key differences. For instance, many junk bonds do not qualify for trading on a major exchange and are instead traded on an OTC market, where investors directly buy and sell them from the issuer. 

The issuers of junk bonds are corporations with financial issues, with some of them having gone through bankruptcy courts and initiated restructuring proceedings to help turn the business around. 

Another point of difference is the yield. Junk bonds, due to an inherently elevated risk of default, have to offer higher yields to make them attractive to investors. 

Keeping track of individual junk bonds can be tedious, which is why Standard & Poor’s offers a high-yield bond index for investors to get an idea of how the junk bond market has been performing over a period of time. 

As we can see on the chart, the U.S corporate junk bond market has been steadily increasing over the past decade, which has been accelerated by interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve to curb inflation. 

Risk Of Investing In Junk Bonds

Due to their high risk of default, investing in junk bonds is generally not advisable for beginner investors. However, aside from the inherent risk of default and market risks, there are other key factors that can make high-yield bonds an especially volatile investment:

  • Liquidity Risk: Junk bonds may have lower liquidity compared to higher-rated bonds. During periods of market stress or when there is a lack of buyer interest, it can be challenging to buy or sell junk bonds at desired prices, potentially leading to wider bid-ask spreads
  • Credit Downgrades: Junk-rated issuers may experience further credit downgrades, making it even riskier to hold their bonds. A downgrade can lead to a decline in bond prices and may result in forced selling by certain investors
  • Covenant Risk: Some junk bonds may lack protective covenants that offer bondholders safeguards in the event of financial distress or restructuring. Without these covenants, bondholders may have limited recourse in challenging situations

Key Takeaways From What Are Junk Bonds And How Are They Different

  • Junk bonds are fixed-income securities that have a low credit rating 
  • Typically, junk bonds are issued by distressed companies with financial difficulties and sometimes bankruptcy proceedings
  • Junk bonds are often traded on OTC markets, as opposed to major exchanges 
  • Aside from market risk, junk bonds may also lack the covenants that offers bondholders some safety in the event of financial restructuring 
  • Investors can track the performance of the U.S junk bond market by tracking the S&P U.S High Yield Corporate Bond Index 

FAQs On What Are Junk Bonds

Are junk bonds risky?

Yes, junk bonds are considered risky investments. They have lower credit ratings, making them more likely to default. Investors in junk bonds face higher default risk, market volatility, and lower credit quality compared to investment-grade bonds.

Do junk bonds pay interest?

Yes, junk bonds do pay interest, just like other bonds. However, they typically offer higher interest rates (yields) compared to investment-grade bonds to compensate investors for the increased risk of default associated with lower-rated issuers.

Who rates junk bonds?

Similarly to any other bond, junk bonds get their credit ratings from the likes of Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. Junk bonds typically have lower ratings due to their inherent risks.