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What are Bond Ratings?

Understanding Bond Ratings: Assessing Creditworthiness

When investing in bonds, understanding the credit quality of the issuer is crucial. To evaluate the financial stability and likelihood of timely payment, bonds are assigned ratings known as bond ratings. These ratings provide investors with valuable information regarding the creditworthiness of a bond issuer. In this article, we will delve into the concept of bond ratings, their significance, and the rating agencies responsible for assigning them.

Defining Bond Ratings

Bond ratings serve as a measure of the credit quality and risk associated with a particular bond. They are determined by credit rating agencies, such as Standard & Poor's (S&P), Moody's Investors Service, and Fitch Ratings Inc. These agencies evaluate the financial strength of bond issuers and assign them a letter grade that reflects their creditworthiness.

The Credit Rating Scale

Each credit rating agency has its own rating scale, but they generally follow a similar pattern. S&P's rating scale, for example, starts with the highest rating of AAA, which is typically reserved for the US government and financially robust corporations. The scale then progresses downward as follows: AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, and so on.

Investment-grade bonds typically fall within the range of AAA to BBB-. Bonds with ratings below BBB- are commonly referred to as "junk bonds" or "speculative-grade bonds." These bonds carry a higher level of risk, but they may also offer the potential for higher returns.

The Significance of Bond Ratings

Bond ratings play a crucial role in the bond market, as they provide investors with an indication of the risk associated with a particular bond. Higher-rated bonds are considered less risky, offering investors a higher level of confidence in receiving timely interest payments and the return of their principal investment. As a result, these bonds typically offer lower interest rates.

On the other hand, lower-rated bonds, such as those in the speculative-grade category, carry a higher level of risk. Due to this increased risk, these bonds generally provide higher interest rates to compensate investors for the potential default or other credit-related concerns.

Evaluating Bond Ratings

While bond ratings are valuable tools for investors, it's important to recognize their limitations. Rating agencies have faced criticism in recent years due to instances where highly-rated bonds experienced significant financial distress or default. Examples include the highly-rated bonds of Enron prior to its bankruptcy and the ratings assigned to real estate mortgage originators and AIG during the 2008 financial crisis.

Investment professionals now approach bond ratings with a degree of skepticism and conduct their own due diligence to assess the creditworthiness of a bond issuer. This includes analyzing financial statements, industry trends, and macroeconomic factors to form a comprehensive view of an issuer's credit risk.

Bond ratings provide investors with a valuable assessment of the creditworthiness of bond issuers. These ratings help investors make informed decisions by providing insights into the risk and potential returns associated with specific bonds. While they serve as useful indicators, it's important to remember that bond ratings are not infallible and should be complemented by thorough analysis and due diligence. By understanding bond ratings and conducting proper research, investors can navigate the bond market more effectively and make informed investment choices aligned with their risk tolerance and financial goals.


The possibility of a company or municipal government defaulting on their bond obligations, usually by going bankrupt, is a real one.

For this reason, all bonds are rated according to the financial stability of the issuer. A look at the history of corporate and municipal debt will illuminate the fact that the possibility of the issuer being unable to pay its obligations to bondholders is a very real one. There is an established system of bond ratings that gives a rough estimate of the bond's reliability.

There are three main sources of bond ratings: Standard & Poor’s , Moody's, and Fitch.

S&P has a rating system as follows: AAA is the highest rating, and usually, only the US government and the largest, well-established corporations with large amounts of cash are awarded this rating. Going down the scale, the S&P ratings are as follows: AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, etc. Moody’s and Fitch each have their own, but similar, system.

In general, bonds rated below BBB on S&P and Fitch's scales are typically called "junk bonds." These bonds usually carry greater risk but also generate higher returns, so, despite the name, they can be quite good investments. In any case, before you purchase a bond, it is important to understand exactly what you're buying and to make sure your portfolio has the right balance of high and low risk bonds.

Something to keep in mind: rating agencies have come under severe scrutiny in recent years, because, for example, the bonds of Enron were rated AAA just two days before Enron went bankrupt, and the bonds of now default real estate mortgage originators were highly rated on the days of bankruptcy announcements. Similar high ratings existed on AIG before their tumble began in 2008.

Therefore, nowadays, most professional investment managers take these ratings with a sizable grain of salt.

What is a Credit Rating?
What Percentage and What Kind of Bonds Should I Have in My Portfolio?
What Types of Bonds Are There?

Disclaimers and Limitations

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