Sinking fund


Sinking fund

Historical Context

A Sinking Fund was a device used in Great Britain in the 18th century to reduce national debt. While used by Robert Walpole in 1716 and effectively in the 1720s and early 1730s, it originated in the commercial tax syndicates of the Italian peninsula of the 14th century to retire redeemable public debt of those cities.

The fund received whatever surplus occurred in the national Budget each year. However, the problem was that the fund was rarely given any priority in Government strategy. The result of this was that the fund was often raided by the Treasury when they needed funds quickly.

In 1772, the nonconformist minister Richard Price published a pamphlet on methods of reducing the national debt. The pamphlet caught the interest of William Pitt the Younger, who drafted a proposal to reform the Sinking Fund in 1786. Lord North recommended "the Creation of a Fund, to be appropriated, and invariably applied, under proper Direction, in the gradual Diminution of the Debt." Pitt's way of securing "proper Direction" was to introduce legislation that prevented ministers from raiding the fund in crises. He also increased taxes to ensure that a £1 million surplus could be used to reduce the national debt. The legislation also placed administration of the fund in the hands of "Commissioners for Reducing the National Debt."

The scheme worked well between 1786 and 1793 with the Commissioners receiving £8 million and reinvesting it to reduce the debt by more than £10 million. However, the advent of war with France in 1793 "destroyed the rationale of the Sinking Fund" (Evans). The fund was abandoned by Lord Liverpool's government only in the 1820s.

Sinking funds were also seen commonly in investment in the 1800s in the United States, especially with highly-invested markets like railroads. An example would be the Central Pacific Railroad Company, which challenged the constitutionality of mandatory sinking funds for companies in the case, In Re Sinking Funds Cases in 1878. [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=99&invol=700]

Modern context

In modern finance, a sinking fund is a method by which an organization sets aside money over time to retire its indebtedness. More specifically, it is a fund into which money can be deposited, so that over time its preferred stock, debentures or stocks can be retired. The amount invested in sinking fund can also be used for purchasing various assets for the company. The companies put some money into sinking fund account and after some years when the asset(like machinery) becomes old the company can use this money for purchasing the new asset.

In some US states, Michigan for example, school districts may ask the voters to approve a taxation for the purpose of establishing a Sinking Fund. The State Treasury Department has strict guidelines for expenditure of fund dollars with the penalty for misuse being an eternal ban on ever seeking the tax levy again. See also sinking fund provision in bonds.

Types

A sinking fund may operate in three ways:
# The firm may repurchase a fraction of the outstanding bonds in the open market each year.
# The firm may repurchase a fraction of outstanding bonds at a special call price associated with the sinking fund provision (they are callable bonds).
#:The firm has the option to repurchase the bonds at either the market price or the sinking fund price, whichever is lower. To allocate the burden of the sinking fund call fairly among bondholders, the bonds chosen for the call are selected at random based on serial number. The firm can only repurchase a limited fraction of the bond issue at the sinking fund price. At best some indentures allow firms to use a "doubling option", which allows repurchase of double the required number of bonds at the sinking fund price.
# A less common provision is to call for periodic payments to a trustee, with the payments invested so that the accumulated sum can be used for retirement of the entire issue at maturity: instead of the debt amortizing over the life, the debt remains outstanding and a matching asset accrues. Thus the balance sheet consists of Asset = Sinking fund, Liability = Bonds.

Comparison with amortizing bonds

Sinking funds are similar to amortizing bonds:
* in an amortizing bond, the principal of "each bond" is repaid (amortized) over the life of the bond;
* in a sinking fund, "some bonds" are repurchased or called, effectively being repaid "in full" "prior" to maturity.

Thus in both cases, the total debt outstanding decreases over the life of the bonds, but in one case, it happens across all bonds, while in the other, some bonds are repaid and others are not.

Note also that sinking funds may be more discretionary – if a bond issuer fails to make a principal payment on an amortizing bond, they are in default, while a sinking fund may choose to not repurchase bonds, thus giving more flexibility.

Benefits and drawbacks

For the organization retiring debt, it has the benefit that the principal of the debt or at least part of it, will be available when due. For the creditors, the fund reduces the risk the organization will default when the principal is due: it reduces credit risk.

However, if the bonds are callable, this comes at a cost to creditors, because the organization has an option on the bonds:
* The firm will choose to buy back discount bonds (selling below par) at their market price,
* while exercising its option to buy back premium bonds (selling above par) at par.

Therefore, if interest rates fall and bond prices rise, a firm will benefit from the sinking fund provision that enables it to repurchase its bonds at below-market prices. In this case, the firm's gain is the bondholder's loss – thus callable bonds will typically be issued at a lower coupon, reflecting the value of the option.

References

*Bodie, Kane and Marcus. 2007. Essentials of Investments. Sixth International Edition. Singapore: Mr Graw Hill.


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