Why you should care about bonds even if everyone is talking about stocks

The US stock market gets all the attention, but the bond market is where the real fortunes are made. Chris Arnade, a former bond trader, describes the unsmiling, powerful markets that move companies and governments

On Wall Street, nearly everybody trades either stocks or bonds. Stock traders are the smiling guys with short hair, button-up blue Brooks Brother shirts, and dark navy pinstripe suits. Bond traders are the same guys, only without the smile.

Stocks do well when the world is doing well and bonds mostly do well when things are going badly. This makes bond traders widely disliked. It is not cool to smile when things are going badly for everyone else.

I traded bonds for 20 years. During that time, countless friends, relatives, friends of relatives, drunk strangers and strange drunks asked me: “What stock should I buy?”

Nobody asked me about bonds. Maybe I should have smiled more.

Stocks seem easy. They are a single price that tells a story on how a company is doing: Apple at $100? Great! Bank of America at $15? Not so hot.

Bonds don’t seem easy. They have a yield, they have price, they have maturity, and they have a coupon. There are government bonds, there are corporate bonds, there are bonds issued by cities. Bonds are individual contracts to pay back a debt. They have a lot of moving parts.

Stocks are how you make money and bonds are how you borrow money. Everybody likes making money, nobody likes borrowing money.

Specialist Henry Becker, left, directs trading at the post that handles AIG on the floor of the New York stock exchange. Stocks extended their decline and bond prices jumped a day after Wall Street’s steady collapse on the week of the crisis.


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