FINANCIAL MARKETS

Financial markets are the institutions through which a person who wants to save can directly supply funds to a person who wants to borrow. The two most important financial markets in our economy are the bond market and the stock market.

The Bond Market

When Intel, the giant maker of computer chips, wants to borrow to fiance construction of a new factory, it can borrow directly from the public. It does this by selling bonds. A bond
is a certificate of indebtedness that specifies the obligations of the borrower to the holder of the bond. Put simply, a bond is an IOU. It identifies the time at which the loan will be repaid, called the date of maturity and the rate of interest that will be paid periodically until the loan matures. The buyer of a bond gives his or her money to Intel in exchange for this promise of interest and eventual repayment of the amount borrowed (called the principal]. The buyer can hold the bond until maturity or can sell the bond at an earlier date to someone else. There are literally millions of different bonds in the U.S. economy. When large corporations, the federal government, or state and local governments need to borrow to finance the purchase of a new factory, a new jet fighter, or a new school, they usually do so by issuing bonds. If you look at The Wall Street Journal or the business Section of your local newspaper, you will find a listing of the prices and interest rates on some-of the most important bond issues. Although these bonds differ in many ways, three characteristics of bonds are most important The first characteristic is a bond’s term-the length of time until the bond matures. Some bonds have short terms, such as a few months, while others have terms as long as 30 years. (The British government has even issued a bond that never matures, called a perpetuity. This bond pays interest forever, but-the principal is repaid.) The interest rate on a bond depends, in part, on its term. Long-term bonds are riskier than’ short-term bonds because holders of long-term bonds have to wait longer for repayment of principal. If a holder of a long-term bond needs his money earlier than the distant date of maturity, he has no choice but to sell the bond to someone else, perhaps at a reduced price. To compensate for this risk long-term bonds usually pay higher interest rates than short-term bonds.

The second important characteristic of a bond is its credit risk-the probability that the borrower will fail to pay some of the interest or principal. Such a failure to pay is called a default. Borrowers can (and sometimes do) default on their loans by declaring bankruptcy. When bond buyers perceive that the probability of default is high, they demand a higher interest rate to compensate them for this risk. Because the U.S. government is considered a safe credit risk, government bonds tend to pay low interest rates. By contrast, financially shaky corporations raise economy by issuing junk bonds, which pay very high interest rates. Buyers of bonds can judge credit risk by checking with various private agencies, such as Standard & Poor’s, which rate the credit risk of different bonds The third important characteristic of a bond is its tax treatment-the way the tax laws treat the interest earned on the bond. The interest on most bonds is taxable income so that the bond owner has to pay a portion of the interest in income taxes. By contrast, when state and local governments issue bonds, called municipal bonds, the bond owners are not required to pay federal income tax on the interest income Because of this tax advantage, bonds issued by state and local governments pay a lower interest rate than bonds issued by corporations or the federal government.

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