Zero-Coupon Bond: Definition, How It Works, and How To Calculate


Zero-coupon bonds, also known as accrual bonds, are unique debt securities that don’t pay interest but trade at a significant discount, yielding a profit upon maturity. This comprehensive guide delves into the intricacies of zero-coupon bonds, from their structure and advantages to pricing calculations and tax implications.

What is a zero-coupon bond?

A zero-coupon bond, often referred to as an accrual bond, represents a unique type of investment known for its distinctive characteristics. Unlike conventional bonds that grant regular interest payments to those who invest, zero-coupon bonds deviate from this norm. These bonds are obtained at a notably discounted price compared to their actual worth, and they do not deliver periodic interest payments over their lifespan. Instead, the allure of zero-coupon bonds lies in the potential for investors to accumulate profits over time, with these profits realized upon the bond reaching its maturity and being redeemed at its full face value.

Understanding zero-coupon bonds

The concept of zero-coupon bonds might seem intriguingly straightforward at first glance, yet there are intriguing layers to its operation. These bonds can come into existence in two ways: either at the point of issuance or through a transformation process facilitated by financial institutions. In the latter scenario, bonds that traditionally bear coupons, or interest payments, are meticulously restructured into the realm of zero-coupon bonds. The defining hallmark of zero-coupon bonds is that they promise a single, comprehensive payment to their holders upon reaching maturity. This distinctive attribute brings about heightened price fluctuations, setting them apart from bonds that regularly dispense coupon payments.

The dynamic nature of zero-coupon bonds can be likened to a waiting game, where investors stand to reap their rewards at a designated future point rather than receiving incremental returns along the way. This fundamental difference creates an intriguing landscape for investors to navigate, often requiring careful consideration of long-term financial strategies.

The mechanics of zero-coupon bonds

When entities issue bonds, they essentially borrow capital from investors. These investors, acting as lenders, earn returns in the form of coupon payments distributed semiannually or annually throughout the bond’s life. Upon maturity, bondholders receive the face value of the bond, with the par value commonly set at $1,000 for corporate bonds. Some bonds, like zero-coupon bonds, lack coupon payments entirely and are issued at a discounted rate. The difference between the purchase price and the par value constitutes the investor’s return.

Zero-coupon bond interest is imputed, estimating an interest rate for the bond rather than establishing a fixed rate. For instance, a $20,000 face value bond maturing in 20 years with a 5.5% yield may be acquired for approximately $6,855. Upon maturity, the investor reaps $20,000, with the difference ($13,145) representing compounded interest. This imputed interest is subject to taxation.

Pricing a zero-coupon bond

The price of a zero-coupon bond can be determined using the formula:

Price = M ÷ (1 + r)^n

Here, M represents the maturity value, r is the required interest rate, and n signifies the years until maturity. This calculation helps investors gauge the price they’d be willing to pay to achieve a desired return. For example, with a $25,000 par value bond due to mature in three years and a desired 6% return, the investor might offer $20,991. This leads to a sale price of 84% of the face value and a 6% annual interest gain.

Zero-coupon bonds: advantages and risks

Zero-coupon bonds typically carry long-term maturity dates, making them suitable for planning distant financial goals like college education funding. However, they are subject to interest rate risk, particularly if sold before maturity. These bonds are issued by various entities, including the U.S. Treasury, state governments, local entities, and corporations, and they are often traded on major exchanges.

Comparing zero-coupon bonds to regular bonds

The primary distinction between zero-coupon and regular (coupon) bonds lies in interest payment. Regular bonds distribute interest throughout the bond’s lifespan and repay the principal at maturity, while zero-coupon bonds lack periodic interest payments. Instead, they trade at a discount and yield profits upon maturity when redeemed at full face value.

How to price a zero-coupon bond

Investors choose zero-coupon bonds based on various criteria, particularly the imputed interest rate they anticipate at maturity. The bond’s price can be calculated using the equation:

Zero-coupon bond price = Maturity value ÷ (1 + required interest rate)^number years to maturity

This calculation helps investors determine the appropriate price to meet their desired returns.

Tax implications of zero-coupon bonds

Imputed interest, or “phantom interest,” on zero-coupon bonds is an estimated interest rate subject to income tax. While no coupon payments are made until maturity, investors may still owe federal, state, and local income taxes on the accruing imputed interest. There are strategies to mitigate tax liabilities, such as purchasing municipal zero-coupon bonds or investing in tax-exempt accounts.


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider.


  • Potential for substantial profit at maturity
  • Useful for long-term financial planning
  • Traded on major exchanges


  • Subject to interest rate risk if sold prematurely
  • No periodic interest payments
  • Imputed interest is subject to taxation

Key takeaways

  • A zero-coupon bond is a unique debt security that trades at a discount and does not pay periodic interest.
  • Investors’ returns on zero-coupon bonds come from the difference between purchase price and face value.
  • Zero-coupon bond interest is imputed and subject to taxation, even before maturity.
  • Calculating a zero-coupon bond’s price involves the maturity value, required interest rate, and time to maturity.
  • Zero-coupon bonds offer advantages for long-range financial planning but entail interest rate risk.
View article sources
  1. 14.3 Accounting for Zero-Coupon Bonds – University of Minnesota
  2. Zero Coupon Bond – U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
  3. Zero-Coupon CDs: What Are They & How Do They Work? – SuperMoney
  4. Bond Investing – SuperMoney