Credit Ratings

MEASURING THE QUALITY OF BOND ISSUERS

Credit ratings are an important tool used to assess the ability of a bond issuer to make timely payments of interest and principal. Before you invest, your Financial Advisor can help you review a bond's credit rating, as well as the effect a rating change may have on the bond.

US Treasury securities, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, are accepted within the investment community as the benchmark against which the credit quality of all other fixed income securities is measured.

A key risk of bond investing is credit risk, which is the possibility that a bond issuer will not be able to make scheduled interest payments or repay the principal when the bonds mature. Credit ratings assigned by nationally recognized statistical rating organizations are one measure of an issuer's creditworthiness. There are three major credit ratings agencies—Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's Corporation and Fitch Ratings—that review and rate an issuer's overall financial condition, as well as the industry or sector in which it operates, to determine creditworthiness. The resulting rating represents the agency's opinion at a particular point in time, and it is continuously revised to reflect any industry, sector, company or municipal developments that could affect a security's market price.

There are limitations to credit ratings. For example, they do not take future events and developments into consideration. As a result, investors should not rely solely on them when evaluating a potential bond investment.

Rating agencies classify issuers and their bonds into two general categories: investment grade and below investment grade.

  • Investment grade bonds are considered likely to meet their obligations and have a low probability of default. As a result, the issuer will generally pay a lower interest rate to access capital than will borrowers with a riskier credit profile. Investment grade bonds are generally more appropriate for conservative investors.
  • Below investment grade bonds are often referred to as high yield or junk bonds and have speculative characteristics. The yields on these bonds are generally higher to compensate investors for the additional risk and, as a result, may be suitable only for aggressive investors willing to accept greater degrees of credit risk.

There is an inverse relationship between credit quality and the default probability of a bond; in general, the higher a security's credit rating, the lower its risk of default. Lower rated bonds will have higher relative yields, but the greater return potential is accompanied by an increased chance of a ratings downgrade and/or default.

INVESTMENT GRADE RATING
Highest Grade/Best Quality
Moody's These obligations are judged to be of the highest quality, subject to the lowest level of credit risk. Aaa
S&P The obligor's capacity to meet its financial commitment on the obligation is extremely strong. AAA
Fitch Highest credit quality; denotes the lowest expectation of default risk. Exceptionally strong capacity for payment of financial commitments. This capacity is highly unlikely to be adversely affected by foreseeable events. AAA
High Grade/High Quality
Moody's These obligations are judged to be of high quality and are subject to very low credit risk. Aa1
Aa2
Aa3
S&P The obligor's capacity to meet its financial commitment on the obligation is very strong, differing from the highest-rated obligations only to a small degree. AA+
AA

AA-
Fitch Very high credit quality; denotes expectations of very low default risk. Very strong capacity for payment of financial commitments. This capacity is not significantly vulnerable to foreseeable events. AA
Upper Medium Grade
Moody's Obligations rated A are considered upper-medium grade and are subject to low credit risk. A1
A2
A3
S&P The obligor has strong capacity to meet its financial commitments; however, it is somewhat more susceptible to the adverse effects of changes in circumstances and economic conditions than higher rated obligators. A+
A

A-
Fitch High credit quality; denotes expectations of low default risk. The capacity for payment of financial commitments is considered strong. This capacity may, nevertheless, be more vulnerable to adverse business or economic conditions than is the case for higher ratings. A
Medium Grade
Moody's These obligations are subject to moderate credit risk. They are considered medium-grade and as such may possess certain speculative characteristics. Baa1
Baa2
Baa3
S&P Obligation exhibits adequate protection parameters. However, adverse economic conditions or changing circumstances are more likely to lead to a weakened capacity of the obligor to meet its financial commitments. BBB+
BBB

BBB-
Fitch Good credit quality; denotes that expectations of default risk are currently low. The capacity for payment of financial commitments is considered adequate but adverse business or economic conditions are more likely to impair this capacity. BBB
BELOW INVESTMENT GRADE RATING
Speculative Grade
Moody's These obligations are judged to be speculative and are subject to substantial credit risk. Ba1
Ba2
Ba3
These obligations are considered speculative and are subject to high credit risk B1
B2
B3
S&P Less vulnerable to nonpayment than other speculative issues; however, the obligor faces major ongoing uncertainties or exposure to adverse business, financial or economic conditions which could lead to inadequate capacity to meet its financial commitment. BB+
BB
BB-
More vulnerable to nonpayment than obligations rated BB, but the obligor currently has the capacity to meet its financial commitments. Adverse business, financial or economic conditions will likely impair that capacity. B+
B
B-
Fitch Speculative. An elevated vulnerability to default risk, particularly as a result of adverse changes in business or economic conditions over time; however, business or financial flexibility exists which supports the servicing of financial commitments. BB
Highly speculative. Material default risk is present, but a limited margin of safety remains. Financial commitments are currently being met; however, capacity for continued payment is vulnerable to deterioration in the business and economic environment. B
Highly Speculative Grade
Moody's These obligations are judged to be speculative of poor standing and are subject to very high credit risk. Caa1
Caa2
Caa3
These obligations are highly speculative and are likely to be in, or very near, default, with some prospect of recovery of principal or interest. Ca
S&P The obligor is currently vulnerable to nonpayment, and is dependent upon favorable business, financial or economic conditions for the issuer to meet its financial commitments. In the event of adverse business, financial, or economic conditions, the obligor is not likely to have the capacity to meet its financial commitment on the obligation. CCC+
CCC
CCC-
The obligation is currently highly vulnerable to nonpayment. The rating is used when a default has not yet occurred, but S&P Global Ratings expects default to be a virtual certainty, regardless of the anticipated time to default. CC
The obligation is currently highly vulnerable to nonpayment., and the obligation is expected to have lower relative seniority or lower ultimate recovery compared to obligations that are rated higher. C
Fitch Default is a real possibility. CCC
Default of some kind appears probable. CC
Default is imminent or inevitable. C
Default
Moody's These bonds are the lowest rated and are typically in default, with little prospect for recovery of principal or interest. C
S&P The issuer has selectively defaulted on a specific issue. SD
General default. D
Fitch Restricted Default: Indicate an issuer that has experienced an uncured payment default on a bond, loan or other material financial obligation but which has not entered into bankruptcy filings, administration, receivership, liquidation or other formal winding-up procedure, and which has not otherwise ceased operating. RD
Default: Indicate an issuer that has entered into bankruptcy filings, administration, receivership, liquidation or other formal winding-up procedure, or which has otherwise ceased business. D

Source: Standard & Poor's, Moody's Investors Service, Fitch Ratings

Expected/Preliminary Ratings
Moody's Expected Ratings are intended to anticipate Moody's forthcoming rating assignments, based on reliable information from third party sources or established Moody’s rating practices. The ratings will exist only until Moody's confirms the Expected Rating, or issues a different rating. e
Moody's will assign a provisional rating when the assignment of a definitive rating is subject to the fulfilment of contingencies that are highly likely to be completed. Upon fulfillment of these contingencies, such as finalization of documents and issuance of the securities, the provisional notation is removed. p
Fitch Expected Rating: Indicates that a full rating has been assigned based upon the agency’s expectations regarding final documentation, typically based upon a review of the final draft documentation provided by the issuer. EXP
S&P Unsolicited ratings are are assigned to credit ratings initiated by parties other than the issuer or its agents, including those initiated by S&P Global Ratings. unsolicited
Not Rated / Not Available / Terminated Without Rating
Moody's Not Rated: NR is assigned to an unrated issuer, obligation and/or program. NR
Not Available: NAV is assigned to an issue that Moody’s has not yet rated is denoted by the NAV symbol. NAV
Terminated Without Rating: TWR applies primarily to issues that mature or are redeemed without having been rated. TWR
S&P No rating has been requested, or there is insufficient information on which to base a rating, or that S&P Global Ratings does not rate a particular obligation as a matter of policy. NR
Withdrawn Rating
Moody's The rating has been withdrawn. Reasons for withdrawal include: debt maturity, calls, puts, conversions, etc., or business reasons (e.g. change in the size of a debt issue), or the issuer defaults. WR
Regulatory Supervision
S&P This rating reflects a company that is under regulatory supervision. R

Source: Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings

Adjustments in Credit Quality

The agencies monitor the credit quality of the securities and issuers they have previously rated. When they determine that a rating change may be warranted, the security or issuer is placed on the "Watchlist" (Moody's), "CreditWatch" (S&P) or "Rating Watch" (Fitch).

Rating Agency Possible Upgrade Possible Downgrade Direction Uncertain
Moody's UPG DNG UNC
S&P Positive Negative Developing
Fitch Positive Negative Evolving

Source: Standard & Poor's, Moody's Investors Service, Fitch Ratings

Consider the Risks

In addition to credit risk, fixed income securities are subject to interest rate risk, call risk and liquidity risk.

  • Interest Rate and Duration Risk. Interest rate risk is the risk that the market value of securities in your portfolio might rise or fall due to changes in prevailing interest rates. All else being equal, if interest rates fall, bond prices will rise and vice versa. Duration is a measurement of a bond’s sensitivity to a move in interest rates. It is expressed in years, and it can tell you approximately how much your bond or portfolio will change in price due to interest rate movements. The longer the bond’s duration, the more sensitive its market value is to changes in interest rates.
  • Call Risk. Many fixed income securities are callable, allowing the issuer to redeem securities prior to maturity. If the security is called, the investor bears the risk of reinvesting the proceeds at a potentially lower rate of return. Liquidity Risk. Liquidity is a measure of how easily a security can be sold in a secondary market, and fixed income securities can range from highly liquid to illiquid. Morgan Stanley provides access to the secondary market, if you wish to sell your bonds prior to maturity. The level of liquidity can vary between bond issues, however, and the price you receive may be more or less than the par value or your original purchase price. Lower rated securities are generally less liquid than investment grade securities.

The market value of bonds may fluctuate, and proceeds from sales prior to maturity may be more or less than the amount originally invested or the maturity value, due to changes in market conditions or changes in the credit quality of the issuer. Talk to your Financial Advisor about your investment goals and risk tolerances when considering fixed income securities in your portfolio.

For more information about bond credit ratings, reach out to your Financial Advisor.

CRC# 1744341 3/2017