What it is:
How it works (Example):
The term "coupon" comes from the small detachable coupons attached to bearer bond certificates. The coupons entitled the holder to interest payments from the borrower. Coupons are rare today because most bonds are not issued in certificate form; rather, they are registered electronically (although some bondholders still choose to hold paper certificates).
Let's assume you purchase a $1,000 XYZ Company bond. The coupon rate on the bond is 5%, which means the issuer will pay you 5% interest per year, or $50, on the face value of the bond ($1,000 x 0.05). Even if your bond trades for less than $1,000 (or more than $1,000), the issuer is still responsible for paying the coupon based on the face value of the bond.
American and Japanese issuers typically make coupon payments every six months. So, in the example above, XYZ Company would pay you $25 twice a year. European issuers generally make coupon payments once per year.
Not all coupon rates stay the same over the life of a bond. Some issuers may pay interest based on a stated margin over a financial index such as the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). These floating-rate bonds typically reset their coupon rates every six months.
Not all bonds have a coupon, as is the case with zero-coupon bonds. Instead of making interest payments, companies may issue bonds at deep discounts and then pay the holder the full face value of the bond upon maturity. For example, instead of purchasing that XYZ Company bond for $1,000 and then collecting 5% interest each year, you could purchase a XYZ Company zero-coupon bond for $750, hold the bond until maturity, and receive $1,000 in return (for interest of $250). In both cases, the investor receives interest, but the zero-coupon bond investor does not receive interest until the bond matures. Note that zero-coupon issuers do not have to allocate cash to debt service (i.e., make interest payments) until their bonds mature.
Companies involved in leveraged buyouts or other transactions that result in a high level of interest burden may issue deferred-coupon bonds, whereby the issuer can avoid making far payments for a specified amount of time.
Why it Matters:
Coupons are one of the defining characteristics of bonds and one of the most influential on their pricing because they give investors a way to compare bonds. For instance, the 5% coupon on the XYZ Company bond may make the bond an attractive investment if similar investments are only paying 2%. Likewise, the XYZ Company bond may not be attractive if similar investments pay 10%.
With higher interest rates, a better yield can be found other places than with bonds. This is why bond prices usually fall when interest rates increase and rise when interest rates fall. Notably, the size of a bond's coupon tends to indicate how sensitive the bond's price will be to interest rate changes. In general, the higher the coupon rate, the less the price will change when interest rates fluctuate.