Zero-coupon bonds do not pay interest during the bond's life. Since most bond investors choose bonds for the periodic interest, this may seem like a contradiction. However, some investors don't need the income, but still desire an investment with a fixed return on their principal. The zero-coupon bond does that.
Zero-coupon bonds are issued with a deep discount from face value. The return results from the bond's price increasing gradually from the discounted value to the face value, which is reached at maturity. The longer a zero-coupon bond has until maturity, the greater its price discount will be.
The bond's interest rate is locked in at purchase, but no interest is paid until maturity. Instead of receiving semiannual interest payments, your principal earns the stated interest rate compounded over the bond's life. When the bond matures, you receive the principal and interest -- the bond's face value.
Since you don't receive any of your investment until maturity, choose a zero-coupon bond with a high credit rating. U.S. Treasury bonds are the safest zeros since they are guaranteed by the U.S. government. However, many corporate and municipal zero-coupon bonds are also offered with high credit ratings.
Like other fixed-income investments, a zero-coupon bond's price moves up when interest rates fall and down when rates rise. However, since zeros lock in a fixed reinvestment rate of interest, they are affected more drastically by interest rate changes. As a general rule, for every 1% movement in interest rates, a zero-coupon bond's market value will adjust by approximately 1% for every year left to maturity. So, if interest rates increase 1% and you're holding a zero-coupon bond that matures in 10 years, your bond's value will decrease by approximately 10%. Due to the large potential fluctuations, it is generally recommended that you buy zeros with the intent of holding them to maturity, when you receive the entire face value.
Zeros have several unique features that may be attractive to investors:
- Your principal earns the stated interest rate compounded over the entire time the bonds are outstanding. With other types of bonds, you receive periodic interest payments which need to be reinvested. Not only do you have to find a place to reinvest, but you invest every six months at varying rates of return.
- You can purchase zero-coupon bonds to mature at a specific time for the amount needed, providing a convenient way to fund known future expenses.
- For a small initial investment, you can purchase a bond that will pay a much larger amount at a later date.
One important factor to consider with zero-coupon bonds is taxation. Even though you do not receive any interest income until your bond matures, you are taxed on the yearly growth in the zero's value (called accretion).
There are ways to avoid the tax. You can invest in zero-coupon bonds within a tax-deferred account, such as a 401(k) Plan or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). That way, you defer taxes on the income until the money is withdrawn. Or you can purchase zero-coupon municipal bonds, whose accretion is not subject to federal income taxes. These bonds may have call provisions, however, so carefully research your options before purchase.