Bonds vs Stocks: A Comprehensive Guide

Everything you need to know about bonds and stocks and the ETFs that invest in them.

kent
|
Research Lead
Reviewed by: Lisa Barr
,
Edited by: Lisa Barr

The two primary asset types in the investment universe are bonds and stocks. Thus, the two main types of ETFs that investors should understand are bond ETFs and stock ETFs. While there are dozens of subcategories of securities and funds within those two primary asset classes, investors should understand the basics on bonds and stocks, the differences between these security types, how they respond to various market conditions and who should invest in them. 

What Are Bonds? 

Bonds are debt securities that represent a form of borrowing for governments, municipalities, corporations and other entities. When an entity issues a bond, it is essentially borrowing money from investors. In return, the issuer promises to pay periodic interest payments, which are known as coupon payments, to the bondholders and repay the principal amount at the bond's maturity. 

From the investor’s perspective, a bond represents a loan to the issuing entity. Bonds are considered more conservative investments compared to stocks because they offer a fixed income stream and are generally considered less volatile. However, they still carry some level of risk, particularly related to the issuer's creditworthiness and changes in interest rates. Investors often include bonds in their portfolios to diversify risk and stabilize returns. 

Bond ETFs 

Bond ETFs are exchange-traded funds that aim to track the performance of a specific bond index, such as the Bloomberg US Aggregate Bond Index, or some other mix of bonds. These fixed income funds offer investors an opportunity to gain exposure to a broad range of bonds with a single investment vehicle that can be traded on exchange like a stock. 

What Are Stocks? 

Stocks, also known as shares or equities, represent ownership in a company. When an investor owns a stock of a company, they become a shareholder, which means the investor has a claim on a portion of the company's assets and earnings. Thus, stock ownership allows investors to participate in a company's success and growth.  

From the investor’s perspective, stocks represent ownership in a company. Many individuals invest in stocks as a way to build wealth, achieve financial goals and outpace inflation over time. However, it's important to remember that investing in stocks involves inherent risks, and market fluctuations can lead to both gains and losses. 

Stock ETFs 

Stock ETFs are exchange-traded funds that track the performance of a specific stock market index, such as the S&P 500, or a basket of stocks within a sector or certain market capitalization. These equity funds are designed to provide investors with exposure to a diversified portfolio of stocks through a single investment vehicle. 

Bonds vs Stocks: Key Differences 

Bonds and stocks are two distinct types of financial instruments with significant differences in terms of ownership, risk, returns and characteristics. Here are the key differences between bonds and stocks: 

Ownership 

  • Bonds: When you purchase a bond, you are essentially lending money to the issuer, such as a government or corporation. In return, the issuer promises to pay you periodic interest (coupon payments) and return the principal amount at the bond's maturity. 
  • Stocks: When you buy a stock, you become a partial owner (shareholder) of the company. You have a claim on the company's assets and earnings, and your potential returns come from capital appreciation and/or dividends if the company distributes profits. 

Risk and Return 

  • Bonds: Bonds are generally considered lower-risk investments compared to stocks. As bondholders have a higher claim on a company's assets than stockholders, they are more likely to recover their investment in case of bankruptcy or liquidation. However, bondholders may face default risk if the issuer fails to make interest or principal payments. Bonds typically offer fixed or predictable returns in the form of coupon payments. 
  • Stocks: Stocks carry higher risk compared to bonds. Stock prices can fluctuate significantly based on market conditions, company performance and other factors. While stocks have historically provided higher returns than bonds over the long term, they do not offer any fixed income stream, and there is no guarantee of returns. 

Income vs Growth 

  • Bonds: Bonds are income-oriented investments. Investors primarily purchase bonds to receive regular interest payments and preserve capital. The potential for capital appreciation is limited. 
  • Stocks: Stocks are growth-oriented investments. Investors buy stocks with the expectation that the company's value will increase over time, leading to capital appreciation. Dividends from stocks can also provide income, but not all companies pay dividends. 

Priority in Repayment 

  • Bonds: Bondholders have a higher priority in the repayment hierarchy compared to stockholders. In case of bankruptcy or liquidation, bondholders are paid before stockholders receive anything. 
  • Stocks: Stockholders are residual claimants, meaning they have the right to the company's assets only after bondholders, creditors and other obligations have been satisfied. 

Volatility 

  • Bonds: Bonds are generally less volatile than stocks. Their prices tend to be more stable because of the fixed coupon payments and the predictability of principal repayment at maturity. 
  • Stocks: Stock prices can experience significant fluctuations, both on a daily basis and over the long term, due to market sentiment, economic conditions and company-specific factors. 

Time Horizon 

  • Bonds: Bonds have defined maturity dates, and investors typically have a fixed time horizon until the principal is returned. They are often used for short-term or medium-term goals. 
  • Stocks: There is no specific maturity date for stocks, and investors can hold them indefinitely. Stocks are commonly used for long-term investment goals, such as retirement planning. 

Bonds vs Stocks: How They Perform in Various Market Conditions 

Bonds and stocks perform differently in various market conditions due to their inherent characteristics and the factors that influence their returns. For example, bonds tend to be more resilient during market downturns and economic recessions. Stocks tend to perform well during periods of economic growth but can also experience significant declines during adverse economic conditions. 

Here’s how bonds and stocks tend to perform in different market environments: 

Stable Economy and Bull Market 

  • Bonds: In a stable market environment with low or moderate interest rates, bonds generally perform well. As interest rates decline, existing bonds with higher coupon rates become more attractive, leading to higher demand and potentially higher bond prices. Investors seeking safety and steady income often favor bonds in such conditions. 
  • Stocks: Stocks also tend to perform well in a stable market, especially during periods of economic growth. A growing economy usually translates into increased corporate profits, driving stock prices higher. Investors may expect capital appreciation and may also receive dividends if the companies are profitable and decide to distribute profits to shareholders. 

Weakening Economy and Bear Market 

  • Bonds: During a bear market, bonds can provide a safe haven for investors. As stock prices decline and market uncertainty rises, investors often seek refuge in bonds, which are considered less volatile. Demand for bonds may push prices higher, leading to capital gains for bondholders. 
  • Stocks: Bear markets can be challenging for stocks, as declining economic conditions and reduced corporate earnings put downward pressure on stock prices. Investors may experience losses on their stock investments during bearish periods. 

Rising Interest Rates and Inflation 

  • Bonds: When interest rates rise, which is common during inflationary periods, newly issued bonds offer higher coupon rates, making existing bonds with lower coupon rates less attractive. As a result, the prices of existing bonds may decline. Longer-term bonds are more sensitive to interest rate changes, and their prices may be impacted more than shorter-term bonds. 
  • Stocks: Rising interest rates can have a negative impact on stocks, particularly those in interest-sensitive sectors like utilities and real estate. Higher interest rates can increase borrowing costs for companies and reduce consumer spending, potentially leading to lower corporate profits and stock price declines, especially for growth-oriented companies. 

Falling Interest Rates and Disinflation 

  • Bonds: Falling interest rates, which often coincide with recession, falling inflation or deflation, can boost the performance of existing bonds since their fixed coupon rates become relatively more attractive. Investors holding bonds with higher coupon rates may see the value of their bonds increase, leading to potential capital gains. 
  • Stocks: Falling interest rates can be beneficial for stocks, especially growth-oriented companies that rely on borrowing for expansion. Lower interest rates can stimulate economic growth, leading to higher corporate profits and increased investor optimism. 

It's important to note that market conditions can be influenced by numerous factors, including economic indicators, geopolitical events and central bank policies. Both bonds and stocks, and the ETFs that invest in them, have their unique roles in an investment portfolio.  

Bonds and bond ETFs generally offer stability and income, while stocks and stock ETFs provide the potential for higher returns but also come with higher volatility. A well-diversified portfolio that includes a mix of bonds and stocks can help investors navigate various market conditions and achieve their financial goals. 

Strategies for Investing in Bonds and Stocks Through ETFs 

Investing in bonds and stocks through ETFs offers several advantages, including diversification, liquidity and cost-effectiveness. Here are some strategies for investing in bonds and stocks through ETFs: 

Investing in Bond ETFs 

  • Diversification by bond type: Bond ETFs cover a wide range of bond types, including government bonds, corporate bonds, municipal bonds and international bonds. Consider diversifying across different bond types to spread risk. 
  • Duration and interest rate sensitivity: Understand the duration of the bond ETFs you are investing in. Longer-duration bond ETFs are more sensitive to interest rate changes, while shorter-duration ETFs are more stable. Adjust your allocation based on your interest rate outlook. 
  • Credit quality: Check the credit quality of the bonds in the ETF. Higher-rated bonds have a lower default risk but may offer lower yields. Balancing credit risk according to your risk tolerance is essential. 
  • Yield consideration: Compare the yields of different bond ETFs. Higher-yield ETFs may carry higher risk, so strike a balance between yield and risk. 
  • Expense ratio: Look for bond ETFs with low expense ratios. Lower expenses can improve your overall returns. 

Investing in Stock ETFs 

  • Market exposure: Stock ETFs cover various markets, such as broad market ETFs, sector-specific ETFs and international market ETFs. Diversify across different markets to capture various growth opportunities. 
  • Investment style: Stock ETFs may follow growth, value or blended investment styles. Consider your investment objectives and risk tolerance when choosing the appropriate style. 
  • Dividend vs. nondividend ETFs: Some stock ETFs focus on high-dividend-paying companies, while others may not prioritize dividends. Investors wanting to focus on income may choose to invest in dividend ETFs
  • Expense ratio: Like bond ETFs, opt for stock ETFs with low expense ratios to minimize costs. 
  • Market capitalization: Some stock ETFs focus on large cap companies, while others may target small cap or midcap companies. Consider a mix to achieve a balanced exposure. 

Balanced Portfolio Strategies Using Bond and Stock ETFs 

  • Asset allocation: Determine your risk tolerance and financial goals to establish an appropriate asset allocation between bond and stock ETFs. A balanced approach can help you manage risk while aiming for growth. 
  • Rebalancing: Regularly review and rebalance your portfolio to maintain the desired asset allocation. Market movements may cause imbalances over time. 
  • Dollar-cost averaging: Consider investing a fixed amount regularly rather than lump-sum investments. This approach can help mitigate the impact of market volatility. 
  • Risk management: Understand the risks associated with both bond and stock ETFs. Diversification across different ETFs and assets can help manage risk effectively. 

Bottom Line on Bonds vs Stocks 

Bonds and bond ETFs provide stability and income, making them suitable for risk-averse investors or those seeking a predictable income stream. Stocks and stock ETFs offer the potential for higher returns, making them attractive for investors willing to take on higher risk in pursuit of long-term growth. Many investors choose to build a balanced portfolio that includes both bond ETFs and stock ETFs. 

Kent Thune is Research Lead for etf.com, focusing on educational content, thought leadership, content management and search engine optimization. Before joining etf.com, he wrote for numerous investment websites, including Seeking Alpha and Kiplinger. 

 

Kent holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and is a practicing Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with 25 years of experience managing investments, guiding clients through some of the worst economic and market environments in U.S. history. He has also served as an adjunct professor, teaching classes for The College of Charleston and Trident Technical College on the topics of retirement planning, business finance, and entrepreneurship. 

 

Kent founded a registered investment advisory firm in 2006 and is based in Hilton Head Island, SC, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Outside of work, Kent enjoys spending time with his family, playing guitar, and working on his philosophy book, which he plans to publish in the coming year.