Agency bonds are issued by two types of entities—1) Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs), usually federally-chartered but privately-owned corporations; and 2) Federal Government agencies which may issue or guarantee these bonds—to finance activities related to public purposes, such as increasing home ownership or providing agricultural assistance. Agency bonds are issued in a variety of structures, coupon rates and maturities.
Each GSE and Federal agency issues its own bonds, with sizes and terms appropriate to the needs and purposes of the financing. There are usually minimums to invest in agency bonds—$10,000 for the first investment and increments of $5,000 for additional investments. Investing in Ginnie Mae Federal Agency bonds requires a $25,000 minimum investment. The degree to which an agency bond issuer is considered independent from the federal government impacts the level of its default risk. The interest from most but not all agency bond issues is exempt from state and local taxes; some of the biggest issuers such as GSE entities Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are fully taxable.
In general the agency bond market is considered a liquid market, in which investments can quickly and easily be bought and sold. However, as explained below, some agency bond issues have features that make the bond issues more “structured” and complex, which can reduce liquidity of these investments for investors and make them unsuitable for individual investors.
Agency Bonds issued by GSEs—Bonds issued by GSEs such as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Banks provide credit for the housing sector. Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (Farmer Mac); the Farm Credit Banks and the Farm Credit System Financial Assistance Corporation do the same for the farming sector. The bulk of all agency bond debt—GSEs and Federal Government agencies—is issued by the Federal Home Loan Banks, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the Federal Farm Credit banks. GSEs are not backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, unlike U.S. Treasury bonds. These bonds have credit risk and default risk and the yield on these bonds is typically slightly higher than on U.S. Treasury bonds.
Some GSEs such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are publicly traded companies that register their stock with the SEC and provide publicly available documents such as annual reports on the SEC website.
Agency Bonds issued by Federal Government agencies—Bonds issued or guaranteed by Federal Government agencies such as the Small Business Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and the Government National Mortgage Association (Ginnie Mae) are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, just like U.S. Treasury bonds.* Full faith and credit means that the U.S. government is committed to pay interest and principal back to the investor at maturity. Because different bonds have different structures, bonds issued by federal government agencies may have call risk. In addition, agency bonds issued by Federal Government agencies are less liquid than Treasury bonds and therefore this type of agency bond may provide a slightly higher rate of interest than Treasury bonds.
*A significant exception to this full faith and credit guarantee for Federal Government agency bonds are those issued by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Its bonds are secured by the power revenue generated by the Authority.
Types of Structures of Agency Bonds
As noted above, most agency bonds pay a fixed rate of interest or fixed coupon rate semi-annually. Most agency bonds are non-callable or bullet bonds. Like all bonds, agency bonds are sensitive to changes in interest rates—when interest rates increase, agency bond prices fall and vice versa.
However, in addition to fixed rate coupon and non callable agency bonds, agencies do structure their bond issues to meet different investor needs.
Variable or floating coupon rate agency bonds: so-called “floating rate” or “floaters” are agency bonds that have interest rates that adjust periodically. Adjustments are usually linked to an index such as U.S. Treasury bond yields or LIBOR according to a predetermined formula (with limits on how much the interest or coupon rate can change).
No-coupon agency bond notes or “discos”: no-coupon discount notes are issued by agencies to meet short-term financing needs and are issued at a discount to par value. Investors who sell such discos prior to maturity may lose money.
Callable agency bonds with “step up” coupon rates: callable agency bonds that have a pre set coupon rate “step up” that provides for increases in interest rates or coupon rate as the bonds approach maturity to minimize the interest rate risk for investors over time. Step ups are often called by issuers at a time of declining interest rates. Declining interest rates may accelerate the redemption of a callable bond, causing the investor’s principal to be returned sooner than expected. As a consequence, an investor might have to reinvest principal at a lower rate of interest.
The interest from most but not all agency bond issues is exempt from state and local taxes and it is important for investors to understand the tax consequences of agency bonds; some of the biggest agency bond issuers such as GSE entities Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are fully taxable for example. Capital gains or losses when selling agency bonds are taxed at the same rates as stocks. Consult your financial advisor before determining whether agency bonds are a suitable investment for you.
Buying and Selling Agency Bonds
Agency securities are generally bought and sold through brokers and are likely to include fees or transaction costs.
The agency bond market in which individuals might participate is considered relatively liquid. However, not all kinds of agency bond issues are considered liquid, including some of which may be structured for a particular issuer or class of investors and may not be suitable for individual investors. Investment dollar minimums may make buying and selling individual bonds less suitable to many individual investors than buying an agency bond fund or U.S. Treasuries directly. Investors should take into account that the tax status of various agency bond issues varies depending on the agency issuer. As with any investment, it is important to understand the work of the agency or enterprise that is issuing the bonds and know the credit rating of the issue. This allows an investor to know the basis on which a bond is being issued.
For additional investor resources on bond issuance programs see the following:
- For more information and documentation for investors on Federal Farm Credit Banks Funding Corporation bond issuance programs, click here.
- For more information and documentation for investors on Federal Home Loan Banks Office of Finance (FHLB) bond issuance programs, click here.
- For more information and documentation for investors on Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLNC, also known as Freddie Mac) bond issuance programs, click here.