All investments are subject to risk, although the types of risk can vary. While you can't totally eliminate these risks, you can develop strategies to reduce them. For bonds, consider these strategies:
Interest rate risk
Interest rates and bond prices move in opposite directions. A bond's price will rise when interest rates fall and decrease when interest rates rise. This occurs because the existing bond's price must change to provide the same return as an equivalent, newly issued bond paying prevailing interest rates. The longer the bond's maturity, the greater the impact of interest rate changes. Also, the effects of interest rate changes tend to be less significant for bonds with higher-coupon interest rates.
To reduce this risk, consider holding the bond to maturity. This eliminates the impact of interest rate changes, since the total principal value will be paid at maturity. Thus, selecting a maturity date that coincides with your cash needs will help reduce interest rate risk. However, you may still receive an interest income stream that is lower than current rates. Selecting shorter maturities or using a bond ladder can also help with this risk.
You typically know what interest income you'll receive from a bond, but you must then take the periodic income and reinvest it, usually at varying interest rates. Your principal may also mature at a time when interest rates are low.
Staggering maturities over a period of time (laddering) can lessen reinvestment risk. Since the bonds in your ladder mature every year or so, you reinvest the principal over a period of time instead of in one lump sum. You may also want to consider zero-coupon bonds, which sell at a deep discount from par value. The bond's interest rate is locked in at purchase, but no interest is paid until maturity. Thus, you don't have to deal with reinvestment risk for interest payments, since you don't receive the interest until maturity.
Since bonds typically pay a fixed amount of interest and principal, the purchasing power of those payments decreases due to inflation, which is a major risk for intermediate- and long-term bonds.
Investing in short-term bonds reduces inflation's impact, since you are frequently reinvesting at prevailing interest rates. You can also consider inflation-indexed securities issued by the U.S. government, which pay a real rate of return above inflation.
Default and credit risk
Default risk is the risk the issuer will not be able to pay the interest and/or principal. Credit risk is the risk the issuer's credit rating will be downgraded, which would probably decrease the bond's value.
To minimize this risk, consider purchasing U.S. government bonds or bonds with investment-grade ratings. Continue to monitor the credit ratings of any bonds purchased.
Call provisions allow bond issuers to replace high-coupon bonds with lower-coupon bonds when interest rates decrease. Since call provisions are generally only exercised when interest rates decrease, you are forced to reinvest principal at lower interest rates.
U.S. government securities do not have call provisions, while most corporate and municipal bonds do. Review the call provisions before purchase to select those most favorable to you.
Keep in mind that the assumption of risk is generally rewarded with higher return potential. One of the safest bond strategies is to only purchase three-month Treasury bills, but this typically results in the lowest return. To increase your return, decide which risks you are comfortable assuming and then implement a corresponding bond strategy.