For example, if you lend money to a borrower and the borrower has to pay interest once a month, you have been issued a fixed-income security. When a company does this, it is often called a bond or corporate bank debt (although "preferred stock" is also sometimes considered to be fixed income). Sometimes people misspeak when they talk about fixed income. Bonds actually have higher risk, while notes and bills have less risk because these are issued by government agencies.
The term fixed income is also applied to a person's income that does not vary with each period. This can include income derived from fixed-income investments such as bonds and preferred stocks or pensions that guarantee a fixed income. When pensioners or retirees are dependent on their pension as their dominant source of income, the term "fixed income" can also carry the implication that they have relatively limited discretionary income or have little financial freedom to make large expenditures.
Fixed-income securities can be contrasted with variable return securities such as stocks. To understand the difference between stocks and bonds, you have to understand a company's motivation. A company wants to raise money, and it doesn't want to wait until it has earned enough through ongoing operations (selling products or providing services). In order for a company to grow as a business, it often must raise money; to finance an acquisition, buy equipment or land or invest in new product development. Investors will only give money to the company if they believe that they will be given something in return commensurate with the risk profile of the company. The company can either pledge a part of itself, by giving equity in the company (stock), or the company can give a promise to pay regular interest and repay principal on the loan (bond or bank loan) or (preferred stock).
While a bond is simply a promise to pay interest on borrowed money, there is some important terminology used by the fixed-income industry:
People who invest in fixed-income securities are typically looking for a constant and secure return on their investment. For example, a retired person might like to receive a regular dependable payment to live on, but not consume principal. This person can buy a bond with their money, and use the coupon payment (the interest) as that regular dependable payment. When the bond matures or is refinanced, the person will have their money returned to them.
Interest rates change over time, based on a variety of factors, particularly rates set by the Federal Reserve. For example, if a company wants to raise $1 million and not a lot of people in the market have free cash to lend, the company will have to offer a high rate of interest (coupon) to get people to buy their bond. If there are a lot of people in the market trying to get a return on their money, the company can offer a lower coupon.
To complicate matters further, fixed income securities are actually traded on the open market, just like stocks. To understand this, first realize that bonds are usually created in round face values, for example $100,000. If the current yield (interest rate) of newly issued similar bonds is 6% per year, and you are buying a bond with a coupon rate below 6%, then you can get the bond at a discount (below face value of $100,000), which brings your rate of return on that bond to 6%. Similarly, if the coupon rate of the bond you are buying is greater than 6% you will have to pay a premium for the bond to bring the rate of return down to 6%.
There are also index-linked, fixed-income securities. The most common and an example of the highest rated variety of this kind could include Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). This type of fixed income is adjusted to the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U), and then a real yield is applied to the adjusted principal. This means that the US Treasury issues fixed income that is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government to outperform the CPI (e.g. to outperform the inflation rate). This allows investors of all sizes to not lose the purchasing power of their money due to inflation, which can be very uncertain at times. For example, assuming 3.88% inflation over the course of 1 year (just about the 56 year average inflation rate, through most of 2006), and a real yield of 2.61% (the fixed US Treasury real yield on October 19, 2006, for a 5 yr TIPS), the adjusted principal of the fixed income would rise from 100 to 103.88 and then the real yield would be applied to the adjusted principal, meaning 103.88 x 1.0261, which equals 106.5913; giving a total return of 6.5913%. TIPS moderately outperform conventional US Treasuries, which yield just 5.05% for a 1 yr bill on October 19, 2006. By investing in such fixed income, index linked fixed income securities, consumers can exceed the pace of inflation, and gain value in real terms.
All fixed income securities from any entity have risks including but not limited to: