What Are Equity Securities and Debt Securities?

Stocks? Bonds? They're both known as securities. Learn the definitions of various securities and what sets them apart.

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Key Takeaways

  • Equity securities are financial assets that represent shares of a corporation
  • Debt securities are financial assets that define the terms of a loan between an issuer and an investor 
  • Fixed-income investments include securities such as corporate and government bonds, but also CDs, which are typically not securities

Most of us are familiar with the more common terms describing traditional investment securities: stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, and so on. But sometimes specialized terms can leave the average investor confused or uncertain.  

For example, most investors probably know that stocks are also referred to as equities. And an equity is a type of security. But not every investor may know the difference between a fixed-income security and an equity. When it comes to bonds, most investors might be familiar with the terms “debt securities” and “fixed-income securities.” But perhaps you might not be entirely familiar with the specific characteristics that define and differentiate the two.

To add more confusion to the mix, the word “security” may also vary in legal definition from one country to the next.

So in case you’re left still wondering about the definition of securities in general, versus stocks and bonds, let’s define a few of the more common security types (according to U.S. definitions).

What Are Securities in Investing?

Securities are commonly thought of as tradable financial assets. While that’s an over simplification, “illiquid" securities that do not trade are not of interest to, and not suitable for, the vast majority of investors. Most securities are issued by institutions (typically corporations and governments) for the purpose of raising capital. Hence, almost all securities are seen as forms of investment.

Because securities cover a wide range of assets, they are divided into broad categories, two of which will be our main focus:

  • Equity securities (e.g., common stocks)
  • Fixed income investments, including debt securities like bonds, notes, and money market instruments. Some fixed income investments, such as certificates of deposit (CDs), may not be securities at all

What Are Equity Securities?

Equity securities are financial assets that represent shares of a corporation. The most prevalent type of equity security is the common stock. And the characteristic that most defines an equity security, differentiating it from most other types of securities, is “ownership.”

If you own an equity security, your shares represent part ownership of the issuing company. In other words, you have a claim on a percentage of the issuing company’s earnings and assets. If you own 1% of the total shares, or security stocks, issued by a company, your part ownership of the controlling company is equivalent to 1%.

Other assets, such as mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, may be considered equity securities as long as their holdings are composed of pooled equity securities.

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What Are Debt Securities?

Debt securities are financial assets that define the terms of a loan between an issuer (the borrower) and an investor (the lender). The terms of a debt security typically include the principal amount to be returned upon maturity of the loan, interest rate payments, and the maturity date or renewal date.

The most common type of debt securities are bonds—e.g., corporate bonds and government bonds—but also include other assets such as money market instruments, notes, and commercial paper.

When you purchase a bond from an issuer, you are essentially lending the issuer money. In most cases, you may be lending money to receive interest payments on the money loaned. (Some debt securities, such as exchange-traded notes [ETNs], are used as a proxy for other tradable instruments.) And upon maturity, you hope to receive the full notional amount of your money back.

Caveat: Debt securities also carry risk—including, price risk and credit risk, depending on the type of instrument and the issuer. Changes in interest rates can create the price risk. Credit risk means the chance that the borrower may not pay off the debt when due. 

What Are Fixed-Income Investments?

Fixed-income investments include debt securities that provide returns in the form of periodic and “fixed” interest payments to the investor. The most common type of fixed-income investments are also securitieslike bonds, mostly corporate bonds and government bonds.

Not all debt investments have a literally fixed payment. Some, in fact, have no payment at all, but rather incorporate the interest effect into the sale price up front. Other examples include certain variable-income securities such as floating rate notes and variable rate demand obligations.

Other forms of debt obligation securities include government Treasury bills (T-bills) and Treasury notes (T-notes).

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Securities Recap

  • Equity securities are financial assets that represent shares of a corporation.
  • Debt securities are financial assets that define the terms of a loan between an issuer (borrower) and an investor (lender).
  • Fixed-income investments are interest income oriented investments, including debt securities and CDs.
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