Level I Review, Fixed Income Overview

Study session 15 in the Level I CFA Program curriculum begins the fixed income topic area with four readings (52-55) covering the basic concepts in debt securities. The topic is worth 12% of your Level 1 score but you really need these core concepts to understand the later material the other two exams. The topic will be worth about 10% and 15% of your Level 2 and Level 3 exams.
Looking back on the Level 1 curriculum for these posts, it strikes me how effectively the Institute manages to work candidates into a topic with basic concepts and ideas. I’ve heard the Level 1 exam described as a mile wide and an inch deep because of the breadth of information involved but the difficulty is offset by not requiring too much detail.
This is a key point you need to remember when studying for the first exam. Get the key concepts and vocabulary first. Not getting caught up in too much detail is going to help you cover the curriculum as many times as possible. Going over the material multiple times helps to commit it to memory and helps you pick out the correct answer out of three choices. You’ll still need a fair amount of detail, but the first exam is definitely a bird’s eye view of the material.
Features of Debt Securities
Understand the basic types of affirmative and negative covenants like paying interest & taxes, meeting financial ratios, limitations on additional debt, and restrictions on asset sales.
Definitions and just knowing the lingo is always important. Know what a coupon is and understand what happens to the price if the coupon rate is higher or lower than current market rates. Think about it intuitively. If a bond offers a higher coupon rate than you can find in the market, you are going to be willing to pay a premium on the price, and the opposite is true for a coupon rate below the current market yield.
Understand the basic idea behind call and put provisions, sinking funds, repurchase agreements and prepayment. Remember, the full or dirty price is the agreed price plus all accrued interest.
Risks Associated with Investing in Bonds
There are 11 basic risks listed with bonds: interest rate, call and prepayment, yield curve, reinvestment, credit, liquidity, exchange-rate, volatility, inflation, event, and sovereign risk. Some (interest rate, prepayment, yield curve) are extremely important and you will be seeing a lot of the curriculum focus on detail but you need to have an understanding of the basic factors within each.
The inverse relationship between rates and price underlies interest rate risk. As rates increase, the price of a bond decreases because investors can get a better rate in other products. Understand how maturity of the bond affects the change in price, i.e. longer time left means bigger price swings because you could be earning more/less for a longer time. Duration is the measure of rate risk and you need to remember the formula for the exam = (Price at lower rate – Price at higher rate)/ (2*initial price* change in yield)
Prepayment risk is when the bond issuer (or mortgage holder) has the option to buy back the product. Remember, all options have value and the value of this call feature will be more valuable as rates decrease.
Reinvestment risk is associated with the need to reinvest payments of interest and principal at lower rates than the bond offers. Zero coupon bonds have no reinvestment risk because they have no payments until maturity while amortizing securities have more risk because they pay off principal and interest.
Understand the three types of credit risk: default, credit spread, and downgrade risk.
Understand the threat that inflation poses to bonds as fixed-income products. This means that even as the value of the currency depreciates, the investor only receives the set coupons and principal so the bond is worth less in real terms.
Overview of Bond Sectors and Instruments
This reading is of secondary importance and you really only need a basic idea of the seven sectors of the bond market and an overview of their characteristics.
Sovereign bonds: Government issued and relatively lower risk. They can be issued in local or foreign currencies. Understand the basic differences of the U.S. debt like T-notes, T-bonds, Strips and TIPS.
Semi-government: These are issued by a quasi-government agency and often carry an implicit guarantee. The focus is on agency mortgage debt and the types of CMO and MBS, think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a few years ago.
Municipal or province: Like sovereign bonds but issued by smaller authorities like towns and cities. Understand the difference between tax-backed and revenue bonds and the effect on risk. The interest is often tax-advantaged for taxes owed to the issuing municipality or state.
Corporate Bonds: Understand the four factors used by credit rating agencies (character, capacity, collateral, and covenants). This section has a few formulas and is probably one of the more testable in the reading.
Mortgage backed securities: Understanding structure and prepayment risk is the important material here and will be used for more detail in the Level 2 exam.
Asset backed securities: Understand the types of internal and external credit enhancements as well as the role of special purpose vehicles.
Collateralized debt obligations: These are basically the same as asset-backed debt but the backing for the bond is a diversified pool of different debts, i.e. domestic/foreign bonds, bank loans, distressed debt, ABS, and MBS.
Understanding Yield Spreads
An extremely important reading and the setup for many formulas in the Level 2 exam. Understand the effect of monetary policy (open market operations, discount rate, reserve requirements, and verbal notes) on rates.
Understand the theory behind the four shapes to the yield curve and what they say about the outlook for rates and the economy: positively-sloped (normal), flat, inverted (downward-sloping), and humped.
Understand the three theories of term structure: pure expectations, liquidity preference, and market segmentation.
1)      Pure expectations says that forward rates represent expected future spot rates and are not based on other systematic factors. It predicts that the expected spot rate in one year is equal to the implied 1-year forward, implying that expectations are unbiased and the shape of the yield curve depends on expectations.
2)      Liquidity preference states that long-term rates not only reflect expectations but also include a premium for investing in the long-term bonds, a liquidity premium. Rates are biased as holding long-term maturity requires the premium and that a yield curve may have any shape because the size of the liquidity premium is positively related to investor risk aversion.
3)      Market segmentation states that the slope of the curve depends on supply and demand conditions in the long and short-term markets. An upward-sloping curve indicates that there is less demand for short-term relative to long-term while a downward sloping curve would imply the opposite.
Study session 15 in the Level I CFA Program curriculum concludes the topic area with four more readings in fixed income.
‘til next time, happy studyin’
Joseph Hogue, CFA

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