Like any bond, a junk bond is an investment in debt. A company or a government raises a sum of money by issuing IOUs stating the amount it is borrowing (the principal), the date it will return your money (maturity date), and the interest rate (coupon) it will pay you on the borrowed money. The interest rate is the profit the investor will make for lending the money.
Before it is issued, every bond is rated by Standard & Poor's or Moody's, the major rating agencies that are tasked with determining the financial ability of the issuer to repay the debt it is taking on. The ratings range from AAA (the best) to D (the company is in default).
The two agencies have slightly different labeling conventions. AAA from Standard & Poor's, for example, is Aaa from Moody's.
Broadly speaking, all bonds can be placed in one of two categories:
- Investment-grade bonds are issued by low-risk to medium-risk lenders. A bond rating on investment-grade debt can range from AAA to BBB. These highly-rated bonds pay relatively low interest because their issuers don't have to pay more. Investors looking for an absolutely sound place to put their money will buy them.
- Junk bonds are riskier. They will be rated BB or lower by Standard & Poor's and Ba or lower by Moody's. These lower-rated bonds pay a higher yield to investors. Their buyers are getting a bigger reward for taking a greater risk.
- Junk bonds have a lower credit rating than investment-grade bonds, and therefore have to offer higher interest rates to attract investors.
- Junk bonds are generally rated BB[+] or lower by Standard & Poor's and Ba or lower by Moody's.
- The rating indicates the likelihood that the bond issuer will default on the debt.
- A high-yield bond fund is one option for an investor interested in junk bonds but wary of picking them individually.
Junk Bonds and Investment-Grade Bonds
Think of a bond rating as the report card for a company's credit rating. Blue-chip firms with solid financials and steady income will get a high rating for their bonds. Riskier companies and government bodies with rocky financial histories will get a lower rating.
The chart below shows the bond-rating scales from the two major rating agencies.
Historically, average yields on junk bonds have been 4% to 6% above those for comparable U.S. Treasuries. U.S. bonds are generally considered the standard for investment-grade bonds because the nation has never defaulted on a debt.
Bond investors break down junk bonds into two broad categories:
- Fallen angels are bonds that were once rated investment grade but have since been reduced to junk-bond status because concerns have emerged about the financial health of the issuers.
- Rising stars are the opposite. The companies that issue these bonds are showing financial improvement. Their bonds are still junk, but they've been upgraded to a higher level of junk and, if all goes well, they could be on their way to investment quality.
Who Buys Junk Bonds?
The obvious caveat is that junk bonds are a high-risk investment. There's a risk that the issuer will file for bankruptcy and you'll never get your money back.
There is a market for junk bonds, but it is overwhelmingly dominated by institutional investors who can hire analysts with knowledge of specialized credit.
This does not mean that junk-bond investing is strictly for the wealthy.
The High-Yield Bond Fund
For individual investors who are interested in junk bonds, investing in a high-yield bond fund can make sense.
You're dabbling in a higher-risk investment, but you're relying on the skills of professional money managers to make the picks.
High-yield bond funds also lower the overall risk to the investor by diversifying their portfolios across asset types. The Fidelity Capital and Income Fund (FAGIX) keeps nearly 12.65% of its money in stocks as of June 30, 2023.
You need to know how long you can commit your cash before you decide to buy a junk bond fund. Many do not allow investors to cash out for at least one or two years.
There is a point at which the rewards of junk bonds don't justify the risks. You can determine this by looking at the yield spread between junk bonds and U.S. Treasuries. The yield on junk is historically 4% to 6% above U.S. Treasuries. If you see the yield spread shrinking below 4%, it's probably not worth the added risk to invest in junk bonds. As of July 31, 2023, the spread is 3.79%.
One more thing to look for is the default rate on junk bonds. This can be tracked on Moody's website.
One final warning: Junk bonds follow boom and bust cycles, just like stocks. In the 1980s and 1990s, investment grade bonds earned upwards of 15% and 20% annually depending on the specific year; however, a flood of defaults can cause these funds to produce stunning negative returns.
Why Buy a Junk Bond?
The simple reason to buy a junk bond is for higher returns. Junk bonds are risky assets but due to their high risk, they come with returns that are higher than safer, investment-grade bonds. Investors willing to take on higher risk for higher returns would buy junk bonds.
What Is a Disadvantage of a Junk Bond?
The primary disadvantage of a junk bond is the issuer defaulting on the bond. Junk bonds are issued by companies or countries that are low-rated. There is a high chance that the issuer may not be able to make the interest payments on the bond or that they may go bankrupt and not only not make payments but not repurchase the bond at maturity.
What Is a Junk Bond Example?
Junk bonds are bonds that have a rating of BB or lower by S&P or Ba and lower by Moody's. Any bonds with these ratings are junk bonds.
The Bottom Line
Junk bonds are low-rated bonds due to the increased risk that there will be a default on the bond, meaning the bond issuer may not be able to make the interest payments or buy back the bond at maturity. In order to entice investors to buy junk bonds, the interest/return on the bond is much higher than better-rated bonds. Investors seeking higher returns may do well investing in junk bonds but should be mindful of the higher risk.