To finance budget deficits, governments have to borrow. They can borrow short-term by issuing Treasury bills, typically for 1, 3 or 6 months. These do not earn interest and hence are sold at a discount below the face value. The rate of discount depends on supply and demand and will reflect short-term market rates of interest. Alternatively, governments can borrow long-term by issuing bonds. In the UK, these government securities are known as ‘gilts’ or ‘gilt-edged securities’. In the USA they are known as ‘treasury bonds’, ‘T-bonds’ or simply ‘treasuries’. In the EU, countries separately issue bonds but the European Commission also issues bonds.
In the UK, gilts are issued by the Debt Management Office on behalf of the Treasury. Although there are index-linked gilts, the largest proportion of gilts are conventional gilts. These pay a fixed sum of money per annum per £100 of face value. This is known as the ‘coupon payment’ and the rate is set at the time of issue. The ‘coupon rate’ is the payment per annum as a percentage of the bond’s face value:
Payments are made six-monthly. Each issue also has a maturity date, at which point the bonds will be redeemed at face value. For example, a 4½% Treasury Gilt 2028 bond has a coupon rate of 4½% and thus pays £4.50 per annum (£2.25 every six months) for each £100 of face value. The issue will be redeemed in June 2028 at face value. The issue was made in June 2023 and thus represented a 5-year bond. Gilts are issued for varying lengths of time from 2 to 55 years. At present, there are 61 different conventional issues of bonds, with maturity dates varying from January 2024 to October 2073.
Bonds can be sold on the secondary market (i.e. the stock market) before maturity. The market price, however, is unlikely to be the coupon price (i.e. the face value). The lower the coupon rate relative to current interest rates, the less valuable the bond will be. For example, if interest rates rise, and hence new bonds pay a higher coupon rate, the market price of existing bonds paying a lower coupon rate must fall. Thus bond prices vary inversely with interest rates.
The market price also depends on how close the bonds are to maturity. The closer the maturity date, the closer the market price of the bond will be to the face value.
Bond yields: current yield
A bond’s yield is the percentage return that a person buying the bond receives. If a newly issued bond is bought at the coupon price, its yield is the coupon rate.
However, if an existing bond is bought on the secondary market (the stock market), the yield must reflect the coupon payments relative to the purchase price, not the coupon price. We can distinguish between the ‘current yield’ and the ‘yield to maturity’.
The current yield is the coupon payment as a percentage of the current market price of the bond:
Assume a bond were originally issued at 2% (its coupon rate) and thus pays £2 per annum. In the meantime, however, assume that interest rates have risen and new bonds now have a coupon rate of 4%, paying £4 per annum for each £100 invested. To persuade people to buy old bonds with a coupon rate of 2%, their market prices must fall below their face value (their coupon price). If their price halved, then they would pay £2 for every £50 of their market price and hence their current yield would be 4% (£2/£50 × 100).
Bond yields: yield to maturity (YTM)
But the current yield does not give the true yield – it is only an approximation. The true yield must take into account not just the market price but also the maturity value and the length of time to maturity (and the frequency of payments too, which we will ignore here). The closer a bond is to its maturity date, the higher/lower will be the true yield if the price is below/above the coupon price: in other words, the closer will the market price be to the coupon price for any given market rate of interest.
A more accurate measure of a bond’s yield is thus the ‘yield to maturity’ (YTM). This is the interest rate which makes the present value of all a bond’s future cash flows equal to its current price. These cash flows include all coupon payments and the payment of the face value on maturity. But future cash flows must be discounted to take into account the fact that money received in the future is worth less than money received now, since money received now could then earn interest.
The yield to maturity is the internal rate of return (IRR) of the bond. This is the discount rate which makes the present value (PV) of all the bond’s future cash flows (including the maturity payment of the coupon price) equal to its current market price. For simplicity, we assume that coupon payments are made annually. The formula is the one where the bond’s current market price is given by:
Where: t is the year; n is the number of years to maturity; YTM is the yield to maturity.
Thus if a bond paid £5 each year and had a maturity value of £100 and if current interest rates were higher than 5%, giving a yield to maturity of 8%, then the bond price would be:
In other words, with a coupon rate of 5% and a higher YTM of 8%, the bond with a face value of £100 and five years to maturity would be worth only £88.02 today.
If you know the market price of a given bond, you can work out its YTM by substituting in the above formula. The following table gives examples.
The higher the YTM, the lower the market price of a bond. Since the YTM reflects in part current rates of interest, so the higher the rate of interest, the lower the market price of any given bond. Thus bond yields vary directly with interest rates and bond prices vary inversely. You can see this clearly from the table. You can also see that market bond prices converge on the face value as the maturity date approaches.
Recent activity in bond markets
Investing in government bonds is regarded as very safe. Coupon payments are guaranteed, as is repayment of the face value on the maturity date. For this reason, many pension funds hold a lot of government bonds issued by financially trustworthy governments. But in recent months, bond prices in the secondary market have fallen substantially as interest rates have risen. For those holding existing bonds, this means that their value has fallen. For governments wishing to borrow by issuing new bonds, the cost has risen as they have to offer a higher coupon rate to attract buyers. This make it more expensive to finance government debt.
The chart shows the yield on 10-year government bonds. It is calculated using the ‘par value’ approach. This gives the coupon rate that would have to be paid for the market price of a bond to equal its face value. Clearly, as interest rates rise, a bond would have to pay a higher coupon rate for this to happen. (This, of course, is only hypothetical to give an estimate of market rates, as coupon rates are fixed at the time of a bond’s issue.)
Par values reflect both yield to maturity and also expectations of future interest rates. The higher people expect future interest rates to be, the higher must par values be to reflect this.
In the years following the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the subsequent recession, and again during the COVID pandemic, central banks cut interest rates and supported this by quantitative easing. This involved central banks buying existing bonds on the secondary market and paying for them with newly created (electronic) money. This drove up bond prices and drove down yields (as the chart shows). This helped support the policy of low interest rates. This was a boon to governments, which were able to borrow cheaply.
This has all changed. With quantitative tightening replacing quantitative easing, central banks have been engaging in asset sales, thereby driving down bond prices and driving up yields. Again, this can be seen in the chart. This has helped to support a policy of higher interest rates.
Problems of higher bond yields/lower bond prices
Although lower bond prices and higher yields have supported a tighter monetary policy, which has been used to fight inflation, this has created problems.
First, it has increased the cost of financing government debt. In 2007/8, UK public-sector net debt was £567bn (35.6% of GDP). The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that it will be £2702bn (103.1% of GDP in the current financial year – 2023/24). Not only, therefore, are coupon rates higher for new government borrowing, but the level of borrowing is now a much higher proportion of GDP. In 2020/21, central government debt interest payments were 1.2% of GDP; by 2022/23, they were 4.4% (excluding interest on gilts held in the Bank of England, under the Asset Purchase Facility (quantitative easing)).
In the USA, there have been similar increases in government debt and debt interest payments. Debt has increased from $9tn in 2007 to $33.6tn today. Again, with higher interest rates, debt interest as a percentage of GDP has risen: from 1.5% of GDP in 2021 to a forecast 2.5% in 2023 and 3% in 2024. What is more, 31 per cent of US government bonds will mature next year and will need refinancing – at higher coupon rates.
There is a similar picture in other developed countries. Clearly, higher interest payments leave less government revenue for other purposes, such as health and education.
Second, many pension funds, banks and other investment companies hold large quantities of bonds. As their price falls, so this reduces the value of these companies’ assets and makes it harder to finance new purchases, or payments or loans to customers. However, the fact that new bonds pay higher interest rates means that when existing bond holdings mature, the money can be reinvested at higher rates.
Third, bonds are often used by companies as collateral against which to borrow and invest in new capital. As bond prices fall, this can hamper companies’ ability to invest, which will lead to lower economic growth.
Fourth, higher bond yields divert demand away from equities (shares). With equity markets falling back or at best ceasing to rise, this erodes the value of savings in equities and may make it harder for firms to finance investment through new issues.
At the core of all these problems is inflation and budget deficits. Central banks have responded by raising interest rates. This drives up bond yields and drives down bond prices. But bond prices and yields depend not just on current interest rates, but also on expectations about future interest rates. Expectations currently are that budget deficits will be slow to fall as governments seek to support their economies post-COVID. Also expectations are that inflation, even though it is falling, is not falling as fast as originally expected – a problem that could be exacerbated if global tensions increase as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Israel/Gaza war and possible increased tensions with China concerning disputes in the China Sea and over Taiwan. Greater risks drive up bond yields as investors demand a higher interest premium.
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- Why a rout in government bonds is worrying
- Governments brace for fiscal reckoning from bond markets
- For Bond Investors, Here’s Why The Recent Rise In Rates Is Actually Good News
BBC News, Daniel Thomas (1/11/23)
Markets Insider, George Glover (25/10/23)
Reuters, Yoruk Bahceli, Karin Strohecker and Dhara Ranasinghe (4/10/23)
Financial Times, Mary McDougall, Sam Fleming, Colby Smith and Kate Duguid (4/11/23)
Forbes, John Jennings (29/10/23)
Information and data
- Gilt market data
- Yields on British Government Stock
- Bond Price Calculator
- Understanding Bond Prices and Yields
- Bond Yield: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It’s Calculated
UK Debt Management Office
Bank of England
Omni Calculator, Wei Bin Loo
Investopedia, Barry Nielsen
Investopedia, Adam Hayes
- Why do bond prices and bond yields vary inversely?
- How are bond yields and prices affected by expectations?
- Why are ‘current yield’ and ‘yield to maturity’ different?
- What is likely to happen to bond prices and yields in the coming months? Explain your reasoning.
- What constraints do bond markets place on fiscal policy?
- Would it be desirable for central banks to pause their policy of quantitative tightening?