High-Yield Bonds

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on July 04, 2023

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What Are High-Yield Bonds?

High-yield bonds, also known as junk bonds or speculative bonds, are debt securities issued by companies with lower credit ratings than investment-grade bonds.

These bonds offer investors higher yields due to their higher risk profile, but they also have the potential for significant returns.

These bonds can offer attractive returns to investors willing to take on the additional risk, but they are more susceptible to market fluctuations and changes in economic conditions.

They can play a significant role in investment portfolios by providing diversification, potential for higher income, and enhanced total returns. They are often used to balance risk and return in a portfolio, particularly for income-oriented investors.

Characteristics of High-Yield Bonds

Credit Ratings

Credit ratings are an essential factor in determining the risk associated with a bond. Rating agencies such as Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch Ratings assign credit ratings to companies and their debt securities.

These ratings are based on a scale that ranges from AAA (highest quality) to D (default). High-yield bonds typically have credit ratings of BB or lower.

These ratings are assigned based on the agency’s assessment of the issuer's financial strength and ability to meet debt obligations. This helps investors evaluate the credit risk associated with a particular bond and inform their investment decisions.

Several factors can affect a high-yield bond's credit rating, including the issuer's financial performance, industry conditions, and macroeconomic factors. Changes in these factors can result in rating upgrades or downgrades, which can impact the bond's price and yield.

Risk and Return

High-yield bonds carry risks that investors should consider before investing:

  • Default Risk: High-yield bonds are more likely to default compared to investment-grade bonds due to the issuing company's lower credit quality.

    Investors can manage default risk in high-yield bond portfolios by diversifying across issuers, industries, and credit ratings. This diversification can help reduce the impact of individual bond defaults on overall portfolio performance.

  • Interest Rate Risk: High-yield bonds are sensitive to changes in interest rates, which can cause their market value to fluctuate.

Rising interest rates can negatively impact high-yield bond prices, as the fixed interest payments on existing bonds become less attractive compared to newly issued bonds with higher yields.

This can lead to capital losses for investors holding high-yield bonds in a rising rate environment.

Investors can manage interest rate risk in high-yield bond portfolios by diversifying across different maturities, using bond ladders, or investing in floating-rate bonds.

Additionally, actively managed bond funds may be able to adjust their holdings and duration to help navigate changing interest rate conditions.

  • Liquidity Risk: High-yield bonds may be more challenging to sell at a fair price due to their lower trading volume and wider bid-ask spreads.

This can result in higher transaction costs and increased price volatility, particularly during periods of market stress.

This risk can be partially mitigated by investing in diversified bond funds, which may offer greater liquidity than individual bonds.

  • Call Risk: Some high-yield bonds are callable, meaning the issuer can redeem the bonds before maturity, potentially leading to lower returns for investors.

Maturity and Duration

High-yield bonds can have varying maturities, from short-term (less than three years) to long-term (more than ten years).

Bond duration, which measures a bond's sensitivity to interest rate changes, is also an essential factor to consider when investing in high-yield bonds.

Covenants and Protections for Bondholders

High-yield bonds often include covenants designed to protect bondholders' interests. These covenants can restrict the issuer's actions, such as limiting additional debt issuance or requiring specific financial ratios to be maintained.

Characteristics of High-Yield Bonds

Types of High-Yield Bonds

Corporate Bonds

High-yield corporate bonds are issued by companies with lower credit ratings. These bonds often provide higher yields to compensate investors for the higher risk associated with the issuer.

Convertible Bonds

Convertible bonds are a hybrid security that can be converted into a predetermined number of the issuer's common stock shares.

These bonds offer the potential for capital appreciation if the underlying stock price increases while also providing a fixed income stream.

Distressed Debt

Distressed debt refers to bonds issued by companies experiencing financial difficulties or facing bankruptcy. These bonds can offer significant returns if the company recovers, but they also carry a high risk of default.

Emerging Market Bonds

Governments or corporations issue emerging market bonds in developing countries. These bonds often provide higher yields due to increased risks associated with political and economic instability in the issuing country.

High-Yield Municipal Bonds

State and local governments or agencies issue high-yield municipal bonds with lower credit ratings.

These bonds may offer tax advantages for certain investors, but they also carry higher default risk compared to investment-grade municipal bonds.

Types of High-Yield Bonds

Market Size and Trends

The high-yield bond market has grown significantly over the years, driven by factors such as low-interest rates, increased demand for higher-yielding securities, and globalization.

Economic cycles and interest rates play a crucial role in the performance of the high-yield bond market. Regional and industry-specific trends also impact the market, as certain industries or regions may experience higher default rates or increased issuance.

Investing in High-Yield Bonds

Pros and Cons of Investing in High-Yield Bonds

Investing in high-yield bonds can offer several advantages, including higher yields, diversification benefits, and the potential for capital appreciation.

However, investors should also be aware of the risks associated with high-yield bonds, such as default, interest rate, and liquidity risks.

Individual Bond Selection

When selecting high-yield bonds for investment, investors should consider the following factors:

  • Credit Analysis: Assessing the financial health of the issuer and its ability to meet debt obligations.

  • Yield and Spread Analysis: Evaluating the bond's yield relative to comparable bonds and Treasury securities to determine if the potential return compensates for the risk.

  • Relative Value Analysis: To identify potential opportunities, compare the bond's price and yield to those of other bonds with similar credit quality and maturity.

Active vs. Passive Investment Strategies

Actively Managed High-Yield Bond Funds

Actively managed high-yield bond funds involve portfolio managers making investment decisions based on research and analysis to outperform a specific benchmark.

These funds may offer the potential for higher returns but generally come with higher management fees compared to passive funds.

Passive Index-Based High-Yield Bond Funds

Passive index-based high-yield bond funds aim to replicate the performance of a specific index, such as a high-yield bond market index.

These funds typically have lower management fees and provide diversified exposure to the high-yield bond market, but they may not offer the same potential for outperformance as actively managed funds.


Diversification is essential when investing in high-yield bonds to reduce the impact of individual bond defaults on the overall portfolio. Investors can achieve diversification by investing in bonds from different issuers, industries, and geographic regions.

Conversely, including high-yield bonds in a diversified portfolio can help reduce overall risk and potentially enhance returns.

Their relatively low correlation with other asset classes, such as stocks and investment-grade bonds, can provide valuable diversification benefits for investors.

Portfolio Construction

When constructing a high-yield bond portfolio, investors should consider factors such as investment objectives, risk tolerance, and investment horizon. A well-diversified portfolio can help mitigate risks and provide a more stable income stream.

Risk Management Strategies

Investors can employ various risk management strategies to minimize the impact of adverse market conditions on their high-yield bond investments.

These strategies may include setting stop-loss orders, implementing duration-based hedging techniques, or using interest rate derivatives.

High-Yield Bond Investment Vehicles

There are several ways to invest in high-yield bonds, including:

Direct Investment

Investors can purchase individual high-yield bonds directly through a broker or a trading platform.

This approach allows investors to select individual bonds that meet their risk tolerance and return objectives, but it may require a more significant amount of research and analysis.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds pool investors' assets to invest in a diversified portfolio of high-yield bonds, providing professional management and diversification benefits.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

High-yield bond Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) are traded on stock exchanges and provide investors with exposure to a diversified portfolio of high-yield bonds, offering liquidity and lower costs compared to mutual funds.

Closed-End Funds

Closed-end funds are publicly traded investment companies investing in a high-yield bond portfolio. These funds can use leverage to enhance returns but may also increase risk.

Separately Managed Accounts (SMAs)

Separately Managed Accounts (SMAs) are customized investment portfolios managed by investment professionals on behalf of individual investors, providing tailored exposure to high-yield bonds based on the investor's objectives and risk tolerance.

Hedge Funds

Hedge funds are alternative investment vehicles that employ various strategies, such as long-short or distressed debt, to generate returns from high-yield bonds while managing risk.

Performance Measurement and Benchmarks of High-Yield Bonds

Key Performance Indicators

Investors can use key performance indicators (KPIs) such as yield, total return, and risk-adjusted return to evaluate the performance of their high-yield bond investments.

High-Yield Bond Indices

High-yield bond indices, such as the ICE BofA US High Yield Index or the Bloomberg Barclays Global High Yield Index, provide investors with a benchmark for comparing the performance of their high-yield bond investments.

Benchmarks and Peer Group Comparison

Investors can compare their high-yield bond investments to benchmarks and peer group performance to assess their relative performance.

Risk-Adjusted Performance Measures

Risk-adjusted performance measures, such as the Sharpe ratio, help investors evaluate the performance of their high-yield bond investments by considering both returns and risk.

Regulatory and Tax Considerations of High-Yield Bonds

Regulatory Environment

Investors should be aware of the regulatory environment governing high-yield bonds, including securities laws and disclosure requirements, to ensure compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.

Tax Implications of Investing in High-Yield Bonds

The tax implications of investing in high-yield bonds can vary depending on the investor's tax status, the type of bond, and the jurisdiction in which the bond is issued. For example, interest income from high-yield corporate bonds is typically subject to federal income tax.

In contrast, interest from municipal bonds may be exempt from federal taxes and, in some cases, state and local taxes as well. Investors should consult with a tax professional to understand the specific tax implications of their high-yield bond investments.

Disclosure Requirements

High-yield bond issuers are subject to various disclosure requirements, which may include providing financial statements, credit ratings, and other relevant information to investors.

Investors should review these disclosures to make informed decisions about their investments.


High-yield bonds, also known as junk bonds or speculative bonds, offer higher yields to investors due to their higher risk profile.

They can provide diversification, potential for higher income, and enhanced total returns, but also carry risks such as default, interest rate, liquidity, and call risk.

Investors can manage these risks through diversification, active or passive investment strategies, and risk management techniques.

There are several types of high-yield bonds, including corporate bonds, convertible bonds, distressed debt, emerging market bonds, and high-yield municipal bonds.

High-yield bonds can be purchased through various investment vehicles, such as mutual funds, ETFs, closed-end funds, separately managed accounts, and hedge funds.

Investors should consider regulatory and tax implications and review disclosure requirements before investing in high-yield bonds. Overall, high-yield bonds can play a significant role in a well-diversified portfolio for income-oriented investors.

High-Yield Bonds FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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