Commercial Paper

It is an unsecured promissory note with a fixed amount of interest issued to achieve short-term requirements

Author: Christy Grimste
Christy Grimste
Christy Grimste
Real Estate | Investment Property Sales

Christy currently works as a senior associate for EdR Trust, a publicly traded multi-family REIT. Prior to joining EdR Trust, Christy works for CBRE in investment property sales. Before completing her MBA and breaking into finance, Christy founded and education startup in which she actively pursued for seven years and works as an internal auditor for the U.S. Department of State and CIA.

Christy has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Maryland and a Master of Business Administrations from the University of London.

Reviewed By: Rohan Arora
Rohan Arora
Rohan Arora
Investment Banking | Private Equity

Mr. Arora is an experienced private equity investment professional, with experience working across multiple markets. Rohan has a focus in particular on consumer and business services transactions and operational growth. Rohan has also worked at Evercore, where he also spent time in private equity advisory.

Rohan holds a BA (Hons., Scholar) in Economics and Management from Oxford University.

Last Updated:December 4, 2023

What Is Commercial Paper?

Commercial paper is an unsecured promissory note frequently issued by banks, companies, and other financial organizations with a fixed amount of interest to achieve their financing short-term requirements.

Large corporations issue (sell) commercial paper in the commercial paper market to raise money for short-term debt obligations (such as payroll), and it is backed only by the issuing bank's or company's promise to pay the face amount on the note's maturity date.

In most cases, the face value of the commercial paper is discounted when it is issued, and the difference between the two amounts constitutes the interest that the investor will receive.

It is often issued at a discount to its face value and matures between a few days to a few months, with the most common maturity time ranging from 30 to 270 days.

Money market funds, institutional investors, corporations, and individual investors who seek low-risk, short-term investments are examples of short-term paper investors. 

It has lower interest rates than other kinds of borrowing since organizations frequently issue it with good credit ratings. 

It also allows issuers to readily convert their short-term assets into cash, while investors can swap their short-term debt paper holdings in the secondary market. This liquidity provision provides flexibility and allows investors to access cash if needed swiftly.

The issuance is governed by regulations, which ensures openness and investor protection. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) oversees its offerings in the United States, imposing disclosure obligations on issuing corporations. 

These obligations include disclosing information regarding the issuer's financial health, activities, and potential risks so investors can make informed judgments.

The interest rates are often lower than other debt instruments, reflecting the issuer's perceived creditworthiness. As a result, it is an enticing investment option for people seeking to conserve wealth while earning a return.

Investors must carefully examine creditworthiness and market circumstances to avoid risks and achieve optimal profits. Commercial paper is critical to preserving business financial stability and promoting economic growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Commercial paper is an unsecured promissory note issued by banks and companies for short-term funding needs. Typically issued at a discount, it matures between a few days to a few months, attracting low-risk, short-term investors.

  • It offers a cost-effective source of short-term capital, flexibility in borrowing amount and maturity period, quick access to cash, and diversification of funding sources.

  • Risks include credit, liquidity, market, regulatory, and reinvestment risks and should be carefully considered by investors.

  • It is issued through underwriters, involving credit rating, documentation, marketing, and distribution. Investors purchase paper, and upon maturity, the issuer repays face value; secondary market trading is available.

  • Types of commercial paper include unsecured, asset-backed, financial, non-financial, foreign, seasoned, and tax-exempt, each catering to different preferences and needs.

Advantages of Commercial Paper

Let us take a brief look at the different benefits of issuing the paper below:

For issuing entities

  1. Cost-Effectiveness: It is frequently a more cost-effective source of short-term capital than other kinds of borrowing, such as bank loans or lines of credit. The interest rates are often lower, especially for issuers with excellent credit ratings. This can lead to huge cost reductions for businesses. 
  2. Flexibility: It provides flexibility in terms of the amount borrowed and the maturity period. The size and duration of the paper issuance can be tailored to the issuer's individual funding needs, allowing them to align their financing with their short-term cash flow requirements
  3. Financing Diversification: Companies can diversify their funding sources by issuing paper. Relying solely on bank loans or lines of credit may expose enterprises to concentration risk if the banking sector is disrupted or credit conditions change. 
  4. Issuance Ease: This is an alternate way to raise financing from a broader group of investors. Compared to obtaining a regular bank loan, the paper approval and issuance process is often shorter and requires less documentation. 
  5. Access to Liquidity: It enables organizations to access cash more quickly, which can be critical in meeting immediate working capital requirements or capitalizing on short-term business possibilities.

For investors

  1. Accessibility: It typically matures in a few days to many months. This appeals to short-term investors because it allows them to swiftly reinvest their assets at potentially higher rates if interest rates rise.
  2. Higher Yields: While the paper provides low-risk returns, the yields are often greater when compared to other low-risk short-term assets such as government securities or money market accounts. Investors can earn a decent return while protecting their wealth.
  3. Low Risk: Well-established corporations typically issue it with good credit ratings. This lowers the default risk, making it a reasonably safe investment alternative, especially compared to longer-term debt instruments.
  4. Liquid Investment: It is generally considered a liquid investment. Investors can sell their paper holdings on the secondary market before maturity, giving them liquidity and the opportunity to retrieve their cash if necessary.
  5. Investment Diversification: It allows investors to diversify their investment portfolios. They can invest in those papers issued by various companies and industries, spreading their risk across different issuers and thereby improving their portfolio's overall risk-reward profile.

Risks of Commercial Paper

While commercial paper has many advantages, it also has certain risks. Credit risk is a substantial risk since it exposes investors to the chance of nonpayment or delayed reimbursement if the issuing firm defaults. 

To mitigate this risk, investors carefully evaluate issuers' creditworthiness, considering credit ratings provided by respected rating agencies. Let us take a look at some of the risks that commercial paper carries:

  1. Liquidity Risk: While it is normally considered a liquid investment, there may be times when the secondary market becomes illiquid. Investors may experience difficulties selling the paper before maturity if there is a dearth of buyers or a loss of confidence in the market.
  2. Issuer-Specific Risks: The risks connected with an issuer's financial health, industry-specific issues, or management actions can impact the paper's creditworthiness. Changes in the issuer's credit rating or impression of its creditworthiness might impact market demand and pricing for the paper.
  3. Credit Risk: It is an unsecured debt instrument, which means there is no security backing the obligation. The creditworthiness of the issuer becomes critical in determining the risk of default. If the issuer's financial status deteriorates or there is a substantial economic downturn, the issuer may fail on principle and interest payments.
  4. Market Risk: Market conditions can influence pricing. Interest rate fluctuations can have an effect on the price and yield of paper. If interest rates rise, the value of the existing paper may fall, potentially resulting in losses for investors who desire to sell before maturity.
  5. Regulatory Risk: It is subject to regulatory scrutiny and compliance obligations. Changes in regulations or the introduction of new regulations may impact the issuance or trading of the paper, thereby influencing its liquidity and value.
  6. Reinvestment Risk: Investors who rely on paper income face the risk of reinvesting the proceeds at lower interest rates if the paper matures during a period of dropping interest rates.

How Commercial Paper works

Commercial paper is created through a simple procedure that involves issuers, investors, and financial intermediaries. 

Here is a detailed description of how the short-term debt paper works.

  1. Issuance and Terms: Through the underwriter, the issuer decides the amount of paper to be issued and the terms, including the maturity date, interest rate, and other pertinent components. Based on the issuer's creditworthiness and current market conditions, the underwriter supports the issuer in calculating the appropriate interest rate.
  2.  Credit Rating and Documentation: The credit rating evaluates the issuer's creditworthiness and informs investors about the risk of the paper. The issuer prepares the relevant documentation, such as a prospectus that explains the issuer's financial position, operations, and terms.
  3. Marketing and distribution: The underwriter uses its network and skills to attract buyers and develop demand for the paper. The distribution may occur through a private placement to a small group of investors or through public offers registered with the appropriate regulatory authorities.
  4. Investor Purchase: Investors send their buy orders to the underwriter or their approved broker after they are satisfied. Investors can specify the face value and maturity date of the paper they want to purchase.
  5. Issuance and Settlement: The underwriter completes the issuance process by accepting purchase orders and confirming the distribution of the paper to investors. The issuer then distributes them to investors, either electronically or as physical certificates.
  6. Interest Payments and Maturity: The issuer pays periodic interest to investors depending on the agreed-upon interest rate and schedule. When the paper matures, the issuer repays the face value to the investors.
  7. Secondary Market Trading: Investors who want to sell their short-term debt paper before maturity can do so in the secondary market. The secondary market provides liquidity and allows investors to buy or sell the paper to other market participants at a price different from the initial acquisition.

Types of Commercial Paper

Commercial paper comes in various forms to meet the demands and preferences of issuers and investors. 

Here are a few examples of commercial paper:

  1. Unsecured Commercial Paper: The most frequent sort of paper in which the issuer provides no specific collateral or security for the debt. Investors evaluate the risk associated with the paper based on the issuer's creditworthiness and reputation.
  2. Asset-Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP): It is backed by a single asset or a group of underlying assets, such as accounts receivable, inventory, or mortgage loans. The cash flows generated by these assets are used to secure them. ABCP gives investors greater security by tying the paper to tangible assets.
  3. Financial Commercial Paper: It is issued by financial entities such as banks, investment businesses, or insurance organizations. These institutions employ that paper to raise short-term capital to meet operational needs, finance trading activities, or support lending operations.
  4. Non-Financial Commercial Paper: Firms in various industries other than the financial industry issue these. Companies utilize nonfinancial short-term debt papers to meet short-term liquidity needs, finance working capital, or fund specific projects.
  5. Foreign Commercial Paper: It is issued by entities located in countries other than the investor's home country. Investors may seek foreign commercial paper exposure to diversify their investment portfolio or to capitalize on specific market opportunities.
  6. Seasoned Commercial Paper: It is a  commercial paper that has had one or more rollovers or renewals. It is more established and may have a track record that investors can use to gauge risk.
  7. Tax-Exempt Commercial Paper: It is issued by municipal bodies like states, cities, or public agencies and is exempt from certain taxes like the federal income tax. Investors looking for tax breaks may be interested in tax-exempt commercial paper.

Commercial Paper FAQs

Researched and authored by Priya | Linkedin

Free Resources

To continue learning and advancing your career, check out these additional helpful WSO resources: