What is a Term Spread or Interest Rate Spread?

Interest Rates, Term Spreads, and Yield Curves Defined

Interest rate futures
Interest rate futures. Getty Images/Glowimages

Term spreads, also known as interest rate spreads, represent the difference between the long-term interest rates and short-term interest rates on debt instruments such as bonds. In order to understand the significance of term spreads, we must first understand bonds.

Bonds and Term Spreads

Term spreads are most often used in the comparison and evaluation of two bonds, which are fixed interest financial assets issued by governments, companies, public utilities, and other large entities.

Bonds are fixed-income securities through which an investor essentially loans the bond issuer capital for defined period of time in exchange for a promise to repay the original note amount plus interest. Owners of these bonds become debt holders or creditors of the issuing entity as entities issue bonds as a means of raising capital or financing a special project.

Individual bonds are typically issued at par, which is generally at $100 or $1,000 face value. This constitutes the bond principal. When bonds are issued, they are issued with a stated interest rate or coupon that reflects the prevailing interest rate environment at the time. This coupon reflects the interest that the issuing entity is obligated to pay to its bondholders in addition to repayment of the bond principal or the original amount borrowed at maturity. Like any loan or debt instrument, bonds are also issued with maturity dates, or the date at which full repayment to the bondholder is contractually required.

Market Prices and Bond Valuation 

There are several factors at play when it comes to the valuation of a bond. The issuing company's credit rating, for instance, can influence the market price of a bond. The higher the credit rating of the issuing entity, the less risky the investment and perhaps the more valuable the bond.

Other factors that can influence a bond's market price include the maturity date or the length of time remaining until expiration. Last, and perhaps the most important factor as it relates to term spreads is the coupon rate, particularly as it compares to the general interest rate environment at the time.

Interest Rates, Term Spreads, and Yield Curves

Given that fixed-rate coupon bonds will pay the same percentage of the face value, the market price of the bond will vary over time depending on the current interest rate environment and how the coupon compares to newer and older issued bonds that may carry a higher or lower coupon. For instance, a bond issued in a high-interest rate environment with a high coupon will become more valuable on the market if interest rates were to fall and new bonds' coupons reflect the lower interest rate environment. This is where term spreads come in as a means of comparison. 

The term spread measures the difference between the coupons, or interest rates, of two bonds with different maturities or expiration dates. This difference is also known as the slope of the bond yield curve, which is a graph that plots the interest rates of bonds of equal quality, but different maturity dates at a specified point in time.

Not only is the shape of the yield curve important to economists as a predictor of future interest rate changes, but its slope is also a point of interest as the greater the slope of the curve, the greater the term spread (gap between short- and long-term interest rates). 

If the term spread is positive, the long-term rates are higher than the short-term rates at that point in time and the spread is said to be normal. Whereas a negative term spread indicates that the yield curve is inverted and the short-term rates are higher than the long-term rates. 

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