What Chimpanzees Can Teach Us About Convertible Bonds

September 9, 2014

In a renewed commitment to finally learn Spanish, one of my colleagues spent quite a bit of time this week awkwardly saying, “Qué es eso?” into the headset Rosetta Stone provides with its language learning programs. Translation: “What’s that?”

Here in the US, the 10,000 or so people reaching retirement age each day often find themselves asking the same question—though maybe not out loud—when advisors use terms of art or casually mention sophisticated investment options. What’s that? Most of these folks didn’t earn their living in the financial services sector, so they don’t speak the language—nor should they feel embarrassed about it.

That said, no one—particularly risk-adverse retirees—should ever invest in something they don’t understand. So let me add one more type of investment to your “I know about that” toolbox: convertible bonds. Despite their obscurity, they’re not the least bit complicated.

Put simply, convertible bonds:

  • have, as a rule of thumb, two-thirds of the upside of common stock and one-third of the downside; and
  • can be an excellent way to diversify your portfolio.

Convertible bonds are bonds an investor (let’s say it’s you) can convert into common stock of the issuing company under certain circumstances. Imagine, for example, that Rosetta Stone wants to finance a new project—maybe it’s doing R&D on how to teach humans to speak the language of chimpanzees (hey, this is purely hypothetical). So Rosetta Stone (RST), which has a current stock price of about $8.80, issues a convertible bond and sets the conversion rate so that it’s not profitable to convert your bonds unless the stock price rises, say to $11.

Then more people start to feel a burning need to learn Spanish—or Mandarin, or Farsi—and RST’s price passes $11. At that point, you can convert your bonds into shares of RST worth more than the stream of payments from the bond alone. You own bonds with upside potential.

If RST’s price goes up, the value of your convertible bond goes with it. If it goes down, the discounted stream of underlying cash flows (the bonds’ coupon payments plus return of the principal at maturity) act as a price floor.

Now imagine that speaking multiple languages goes out of vogue, and instead of rising past $11.00, RST drops to $4.00. You’ll still receive interest and principal—meaning your convertible bonds can’t be worth less than those payments.

Of course, there’s always the threat of default. Say Rosetta Stone goes bankrupt for one reason or another (maybe it overspent on the chimp project, and it failed). The silver lining is that you’ll have a better chance of getting some money back than if you owned common stock.

What You Trade for the Option to Convert

As with any investment, there are tradeoffs: convertible bonds have slightly lower yields. The company pays a lower interest rate, and in exchange you have the option to convert your bonds. Also, convertible bonds often fall into the high-yield/junk-bond category.

What’s more, it’s often only feasible for individuals to invest in convertible bonds through convertible bond funds. And you know what that means: fees. With an average expense ratio of 1.25%, fund managers have to get past that hurdle before they can start making you money.

With that, why would anyone want to buy a convertible bond fund? In a word, diversification. We hold one convertible bond fund in our retirement-specific portfolio for downside protection and the diversification it provides. With a gross expense ratio of 0.4% and one-third of its holdings in investment-grade bonds, this particular fund avoids the major pitfalls of most convertible bond funds.


Less common investments are worth knowing about, but understanding them doesn’t mean you should jump in whole hog—particularly when you’re investing your retirement nest egg. And that’s our focus at Miller’s Money: plain-English financial education and smart retirement investing. Read our free weekly e-letter, Miller’s Money Weekly every Thursday by signing up here.

During 1500s the Spaniards had taken 16,000,000 kilograms of silver from Peru.