Sinking fund
A sinking fund is a fund established by a government agency or business for the purpose of reducing debt by repaying or purchasing outstanding loans and securities held against the entity. It helps keep the borrower liquid so it can repay the bondholder.

Historical context

The sinking fund was first used in Great Britain
Kingdom of Great Britain
The former Kingdom of Great Britain, sometimes described as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN. was a sovereign...

 in the 18th century to reduce national debt. While used by Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole
Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, KG, KB, PC , known before 1742 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British statesman who is generally regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain....

 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 funds were often raided by the Treasury when they needed funds quickly.

In 1772, the nonconformist minister Richard Price
Richard Price
Richard Price was a British moral philosopher and preacher in the tradition of English Dissenters, and a political pamphleteer, active in radical, republican, and liberal causes such as the American Revolution. He fostered connections between a large number of people, including writers of the...

 published a pamphlet on methods of reducing the national debt. The pamphlet caught the interest of William Pitt the Younger
William Pitt the Younger
William Pitt the Younger was a British politician of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He became the youngest Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 24 . He left office in 1801, but was Prime Minister again from 1804 until his death in 1806...

, 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
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan 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.

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 a 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.


A sinking fund may operate in one or more of the following ways:
  1. The firm may repurchase a fraction of the outstanding bonds in the open market each year.
  2. The firm may repurchase a fraction of outstanding bonds at a special call price associated with the sinking fund provision (they are callable bond
    Callable bond
    A callable bond is a type of bond that allows the issuer of the bond to retain the privilege of redeeming the bond at some point before the bond reaches the date of maturity. In other words, on the call date, the issuer has the right, but not the obligation, to buy back the bonds from the bond...

  3. 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.
  4. 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
    Matching principle
    The matching principle is a culmination of accrual accounting and the revenue recognition principle. They both determine the accounting period, in which revenues and expenses are recognized. According to the principle, expenses are recognized when obligations are incurred The matching principle...

     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
Default (finance)
In finance, default occurs when a debtor has not met his or her legal obligations according to the debt contract, e.g. has not made a scheduled payment, or has violated a loan covenant of the debt contract. A default is the failure to pay back a loan. Default may occur if the debtor is either...

, 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
Credit risk
Credit risk is an investor's risk of loss arising from a borrower who does not make payments as promised. Such an event is called a default. Other terms for credit risk are default risk and counterparty risk....


However, if the bonds are callable, this comes at a cost to creditors, because the organization has an option
Option (finance)
In finance, an option is a derivative financial instrument that specifies a contract between two parties for a future transaction on an asset at a reference price. The buyer of the option gains the right, but not the obligation, to engage in that transaction, while the seller incurs the...

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 higher coupon rate, reflecting the value of the option.
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