Bonds for the equity investor

The Sterling Report

Marian Ross

Sunday, March 18, 2018

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Have you ever placed a bet? You agree to pay a certain amount to your friend/casino if a certain condition is met. For example, you may have bet that the Patriots were going to win the NFL in 2017. Or that Chelsea would have won the EPL in 2016.

If you are tired of losing money to sports betting, the recent rise in volatility in financial markets has made “making bets” more attractive.

In recent weeks, large cap investment-grade rated banks have started issuing fixed income instruments with very high interest rates. However, the payment of the coupons is contingent on the fulfilment of specific conditions. Similarly, the repayment of principal is also linked to an external condition.

Let's take a look at how these instruments work:

A large UK bank could issue a note with the following conditions:

—You will receive income of 8.7 per cent each year, if the S&P 500 does not fall by more than 30 per cent. The index level of the S&P 500 is recorded on the issue date of the note. It is called the “initial index level”. On a quarterly basis, the issuer will check the level of the S&P 500 and compare it to the initial level. Think of this quarterly date as the day of the “football match” or the day on which the outcome of your bet will be determined.

If, on the “observation date”, the S&P 500 index level is 70 per cent or more of its initial level, you will receive income that's equal to 8.7 per cent per annum of your principal.

If however, your team loses the football match, you don't receive any money. Similarly, if the S&P 500 falls by more than 30 per cent on the “observation date”, you will not receive an interest payment.

—You will receive 100 per cent of your principal investment as long as the S&P 500 does not fall by more than 50 per cent. Should the index fall by more than 50 per cent, your principal will be exposed to the full downside of the index.

For example, if the index falls by 60 per cent, you would receive $400 for every $1000 invested. If, however, the index remains at or above the initial level, the investor will receive his full principal at maturity.

There are many variations to this structure. It's possible that the payment of coupons and principal could be linked to the performance of more than one index, or on an entirely different reference asset (eg, the price of oil or Apple stock).

These notes allow investors to get much higher returns from a high-quality credit. A “plain vanilla” 7-year bond from the same large UK bank currently offers investors a yield of approximately 3.6 per cent. Investors receive an extra 5.1 per cent to compensate them for the risks tiedto the equity market performance.


Investors must be aware of the difference in buying a note issued by a local institution and a note issued by an investment grade rated bank in the US or UK. If these notes are issued by local financial institutions, they will carry the credit and country risk inherent in the local environment. However, investors have the ability to access similarly structured notes backed by large banks such as Barclays, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs for much lower levels of credit risk and at much higher coupons.


Structured notes are not usually widely traded and can be fairly illiquid. Investors should be prepared to hold the note until maturity or accept a price cut if they would like to exit before maturity.

The tenor or duration of these notes is also very important. Investors should aim to minimise the tenor of the notes and keep the tenor as short as possible in the context of the current environment. As interest rates and volatility rise, the issuance of structured notes will increase and the terms will become more attractive. Once this happens, investors could extend the duration of the notes they purchase and possibly use modest amounts of leverage to enhance their returns.

Marian Ross is an assistant vice-president of Trading & Investment at Sterling Asset Management. Sterling provides financial advice and instruments in US dollars and other hard currencies to the corporate, individual and institutional investor. Visit our website at Feedback: If you wish to have Sterling address your investment questions in upcoming articles, e-mail us at:

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