How to Shop for Bonds

July 19, 2021
You comparison shop for everything else—so why not for bonds?

Would you ever buy a car—or even a new pair of shoes—without looking for the best deal? Probably not. So, why don't more investors comparison shop for bonds?

"Many investors simply don't realize different firms charge different prices for the exact same bond," says Kathy Jones, managing director and chief fixed income strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.

The problem stems from the fact that bonds don't trade on centralized markets like stocks, which makes their true cost difficult—if not impossible—to ascertain. Instead, most are purchased "over the counter" through a brokerage firm that buys the bond on your behalf. The firm then tacks on a fee, or markup, that can range from a fraction of a percent to several percentage points, depending on factors such as bond liquidity and the firm executing the trade.

"Too many brokerages not only charge far too much but also conceal such costs from investors," Kathy says. So, before you buy your next bond, ask your broker these important questions—and be sure you're satisfied with the answers.

  1. What's the market price? This will reflect the actual price it costs your broker to buy a bond from another dealer (which may include fees paid to the dealer).
  2. What's the markup? A markup refers to the difference between the market price of a bond and the price a broker-dealer charges to sell it. A markup is generally wrapped into the price—and may or may not be disclosed. 
  3. Are there additional fees? In addition to markup, brokers may charge miscellaneous fees to cover administrative services, clearing fees, overhead, etc.—which, as with the markup, they may or may not be required to disclose.
  4. What's the accrued interest? When you buy a bond between coupon payment dates, you'll owe the seller any accrued interest since the last payment date. This cost has nothing to do with your broker but does factor into the total cost.
  5. What's the overall cost? This will include all of the above: the market price plus any markup, additional fees, and accrued interest.

"Be wary of firms that fail to give you direct answers about their fees," Kathy advises. "They're probably being opaque for a reason."

Indeed, even seemingly small differences in markups can mean giving up hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in total returns over time. And with prices and yields fluctuating to the degree they have recently, it pays to shop around.

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The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Diversification strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed income investments are subject to various other risks, including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications, and other factors. Lower-rated securities are subject to greater credit risk, default risk, and liquidity risk.

In the bond market, there is no centralized exchange or quotation service for most fixed income securities. Prices in the secondary market generally reflect activity by market participants or dealers linked to various trading systems. Bonds available through Schwab may be available through other dealers at superior or inferior prices compared to those available at Schwab. All prices are subject to change without prior notice.

Schwab reserves the right to act as principal on any fixed income transaction, public offering, or securities transaction. When Schwab acts as principal, the bond price includes our transaction fee and may also include a markup that reflects the bid-ask spread and is not subject to a minimum or maximum. When trading as principal, Schwab may also be holding the security in its own account prior to selling it to you and, therefore, may make (or lose) money depending on whether the price of the security has risen or fallen while Schwab has held it. When Schwab acts as agent, a commission will be charged on the transaction.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.