FIIG - The Fixed Income Experts

News and Education

Session 1 - Fixed Income Essentials

by Elizabeth Moran | Sep 08, 2012

Session description and content

At the end of this session you should be able to understand:

  1. the definition of the fixed income asset class
  2. why it is important for investors to include an allocation of fixed income in their portfolios
  3. the importance of capital structure when making decisions about investment classes
  4. the direct relationship between risk and reward – the greater the risk the greater the expected reward

What is Fixed Income?

Fixed income refers to debt securities (for example bonds) that pay a defined distribution (the coupon) for a given period of time (the term) and repay the face value of the security at maturity. A fixed income security or bond is a loan from an investor to the issuer of the security. Issuers of fixed income securities in Australia include the Commonwealth Government, state governments, banks and other corporations. The specific structure of a fixed income security can vary significantly depending on the issuer, term and maturity, coupon type and level of subordination in the capital structure.

Why invest in fixed income?

From an investor’s perspective, the primary purpose of the fixed income asset class is to provide a low risk, reliable income stream and to preserve capital.

Fixed income offers investors:

1. Stability

One of the key characteristics of most fixed income investments is the repayment of capital at maturity, or in some cases, over the life of the bond. Of course, capital repayment is subject to the ability of the issuer of the bond to meet this obligation. Fixed income includes a spectrum of issuers with different risks, however, all fixed income securities are guaranteed by their issuers so, assuming the government, the corporation or the issuer of the security remains solvent and does not go into liquidation, investor’s receive repayment of their capital at maturity.

One of the lowest risk fixed income products is a Commonwealth Government bond issued by the Australian Government.

Higher risk products like subordinated debt (bonds) and hybrid securities issued by a range of corporations including high and low risk entities offer much higher returns than government bonds. As long as investors are comfortable with the underlying credit quality of the issuer, these assets can provide stability and diversity in a portfolio.

2. Regular Income

Fixed income securities provide a regular income stream through coupon (interest) payments where the dates and amount of the coupon payable are defined at the time of issue. A portfolio of fixed income securities can be tailored to meet investors’ cash flow requirements.

3. Diversification

Diversification spreads investment across a range of assets, maturities, industries and risks with the aim of reducing the impact of any one investment in a diverse portfolio. Fixed income allows diversification away from the two most cyclical asset classes – equities and property.

Fixed income products can counter-balance higher risk investments in a portfolio and they can serve to even out returns in times of high volatility. Most, if not all, balanced investment portfolios should contain a significant fixed income allocation to ensure investors of their continued ability to meet ongoing business and personal commitments. The fixed income asset class offers a broad spectrum of products, risks, returns and maturities to provide a diversified and balanced portfolio solution for investors.

4. Ability to earn better returns than bank deposits

Many investors use term deposits which provide minimal risk but generally earn relatively low returns. One of the many strategies investors can employ is to invest in higher risk assets issued by the same institution which offer higher returns. By undertaking this strategy, the investor retains exposure to the same company (assured of its credit quality and ongoing viability) but improves overall return by taking a subordinated position within the overall capital structure of the issuer. See Figure 1.1 explaining capital structure below.

5. Ability to diversify the range of portfolio maturities

Bond maturities typically vary between one and ten years. In addition, bonds are tradable securities and can be sold before maturity. The investment return, when a bond is sold prior to maturity, may differ from the initial yield.

6. Liquidity

Cash is an important component in a portfolio. Investors with cash can use it to pay their bills and maintain their positions. Equally, very low risk and highly liquid fixed income investments such as government bonds can be sold at short notice if required. Liquidity is a fundamental factor in building a portfolio.

An important function of liquidity is being able to sell an asset quickly without significant loss. Assets that cannot be easily sold or traded in a secondary market need an appropriate return to compensate for illiquidity.

7. Protection against loss in a cyclical downturn

Generally, a fixed income allocation in your portfolio will act to protect it during a cyclical downturn. A greater allocation will provide greater protection. Setting your asset allocation and regularly rebalancing your portfolio, assuming a set fixed income allocation, should provide ongoing protection.

Capital Structure, Capital Structure, Capital Structure

Property investors know and respect the mantra location, location, location. Key in fixed income markets is where the product sits in the capital structure. So, if you decide not to complete the Focus on Fixed Income Online Course, take the fixed income mantra with you – capital structure, capital structure, capital structure.

Where an investment sits in the capital structure is crucial in determining whether the return adequately compensates the investor for the risk involved. Equities (or shares) are highest risk and should provide the greatest returns. In contrast, most bonds or debt securities (with the exception of a very small number of hybrid securities) all sit higher in the structure and are safer in the event of liquidation. Generally, they are lower risk and offer lower returns. Including bonds or debt securities in investment portfolios lowers volatility.

Risk and reward

Risk has a direct relationship with reward. The higher the risk of a security the greater the expected reward. Investing a high proportion of your funds in the highest risk category, equities (shares) can expose your portfolio to loss in a cyclical downturn. Fixed income securities which are lower risk as they sit higher in the capital structure generally lower the risk of your overall portfolio, helping to preserve capital. See Figure 1.2 below and see Session 3 for more information.

Review questions

1. Fixed income offers investors

  1. A guaranteed return of capital invested at maturity
  2. A return of capital at maturity assuming the company does not go into liquidation
  3. Lower volatility than the share market but higher returns
  4. Lower volatility than the share market but lower returns

Possible answers

  1. a & c
  2. b & d
  3. b & c
  4. None of the above

2. Which asset class is the highest risk and should therefore deliver the highest returns?

  1. Subordinated debt
  2. Property
  3. Equities
  4. Government bonds

3. The main purpose of fixed income is to provide

  1. A boost to my superannuation returns as I haven’t saved enough for retirement
  2. Diversification of my portfolio away from the higher risk asset classes of property and equities
  3. A low risk asset where I expect to be repaid in full at maturity
  4. A low risk asset class where I can earn better returns than bank deposits