Introduction to Structured Notes

Posted by Bristol Capital Management 30-07-2020


Structured notes have emerged as a unique investment vehicle in the financial landscape. These hybrid securities, issued by financial institutions, offer a blend of features from both fixed income instruments and derivatives. Tied to an underlying benchmark such as a single stock, equity index, ETF, commodity, or currency, structured notes provide a compelling option for investors seeking diversification and risk-adjusted returns. This article aims to offer an in-depth understanding of structured notes, their types, investment objectives, and associated risks. In a world where financial markets are increasingly volatile and unpredictable, structured notes offer a nuanced approach to investment that can be tailored to individual needs.

What Are Structured Notes?

Structured notes are specialized financial products that combine a debt obligation with an embedded derivative component. This derivative is linked to an underlying benchmark, which can range from a single stock to a broad market index. Unlike traditional bonds or equities, structured notes offer a unique set of performance characteristics that resemble both fixed income instruments and the underlying asset they’re tied to. They offer a way to potentially earn higher yields than traditional fixed-income securities while providing a level of protection against downside risks.

Real-World Example 1: Principal Protected Notes (PPNs)

For instance, a structured note could be constructed by linking its return to the TSX / S&P 500 Composite Index. A potential PPN may stipulate that the repayment of the principal is guaranteed upon maturity, with any return above the principal being contingent on the underlying index being valued within a certain range—say 0 and 4%. Any increase in value above this range is captured by the issuer in exchange for eliminating the downside risk of the index losing value. For example, if the return on the index is 3.2% for the year, the investor will receive a 3.2% return on each note purchased. This would give the investor partial exposure to the return of an equity index (TSX / S&P 500 Composite) without the typical risk associated with an equity investment.

Investment Objectives: Growth vs. Income

Structured notes can be tailored to meet a variety of investment objectives:

Market Growth

If your primary goal is capital appreciation, structured notes can be designed to offer additional protection when the underlying market drops. Conversely, they can also be structured to produce extra gains when the market rises. This flexibility allows investors to fine-tune their exposure to market risks and rewards, making structured notes a valuable tool for strategic asset allocation. They are particularly useful for investors who have a bullish outlook on a particular asset but want to mitigate potential losses.

Enhanced Income

For investors focused on income generation, structured notes offer an intriguing option. They may pay coupons that can increase or decrease based on the performance of the underlying benchmark. This variability in income streams makes structured notes an excellent choice for those looking to diversify their income sources, especially in a low-interest-rate environment. They can be particularly appealing to retirees or those nearing retirement who are looking for more stable income streams.

Real-World Example 2: Partially Protected Notes

A structured note may also be issued with only partial principal protection. This agreement may include contingencies stating that if the underlying index were to fall by 50% or more, then the investor is liable for those losses—i.e., their principal investment will lose 50% or more of its value. For example, a structured note agreement may stipulate that the note will return a fixed 5% each year for 5 years, with 100% of the principal to be returned at maturity. The principal return is contingent on the underlying benchmark not decreasing by more than 50%. However, the total investment loss will be buffered by the annual 5% payments received. If the underlying index exceeds a gain of 30% at any time during the life of the note, the notes are retracted, and 100% of the principal is returned.

Risks and Considerations

Credit Risk

In Canada, investors should be aware that not all structured notes come with CDIC (Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation) protection, unlike traditional savings accounts or GICs (Guaranteed Investment Certificates). This makes the creditworthiness of the issuer a significant factor to consider. Before investing in structured notes, it’s essential to evaluate the financial stability of the issuing financial institution. You can do this by reviewing their credit ratings from agencies like DBRS, S&P, or Moody’s, as well as scrutinizing their financial statements. This step is often overlooked but is crucial as it directly impacts the return on your investment.

Liquidity Risk

Structured notes are generally considered long-term investments and may have limited liquidity. While some issuers may agree to buy back the note upon the investor’s request, they are under no legal obligation to do so. This lack of a secondary market can make it challenging to exit the investment before maturity, potentially leading to financial strain in case of an emergency need for liquidity. This is why they are often recommended for investors who do not require short-term liquidity.

Reinvestment Risk 

Investors should be aware of reinvestment risk, particularly if the issuer decides to call the note back before its maturity date. A call feature allows the issuer to return the principal to the investor before the note matures, usually because market conditions have changed in a way that makes the note less profitable for the issuer.

When this happens, investors are suddenly faced with the challenge of having to reinvest the principal in a possibly less favorable market environment. For instance, interest rates may have fallen, or investment alternatives may not offer the same risk-reward profile as the original structured note. This can be particularly concerning for those who counted on the structured note as a long-term investment strategy and now have to seek alternative options that may not align with their original investment objectives.

In such scenarios, the investor is left with the task of finding a new investment vehicle that can match or exceed the returns of the called note, which is not always feasible. This is especially true in a market where interest rates are low, making high-yielding fixed-income options harder to come by.

Costs and Fees

When considering structured notes as an investment option, it’s crucial to pay close attention to the associated costs and fees, which can significantly impact your overall returns. Unlike traditional fixed-income securities like bonds or GICs, structured notes often come with a range of charges that can eat into your profits.

Management Fees

Many structured notes include ongoing management fees, which are usually a percentage of the invested capital. These fees go toward the administration and management of the note and can vary depending on the complexity of the investment.

Issuance Costs

When you initially invest in a structured note, there may be upfront issuance costs. These are fees charged by the issuer for creating and selling the note. They are often embedded in the note’s structure and may not be explicitly stated, making it crucial to read the offering documents carefully.

Trading Spreads

If you decide to sell your structured note before maturity, you may encounter trading spreads. This is the difference between the buying and selling price of the note, and it can be quite wide, especially for more complex or less liquid notes.

Early Redemption Fees

Some structured notes come with early redemption fees if you decide to exit the investment before the maturity date. These fees can be substantial and are meant to discourage early withdrawal from the investment.

Hidden Costs

Structured notes can also have hidden costs like embedded derivatives or opportunity costs. These are not always transparent and can make the note more expensive than initially anticipated.

Tax Implications

For Canadian investors, it’s also essential to consider the tax implications of investing in structured notes. The tax treatment can vary based on the note’s structure and your individual tax situation, so consulting a tax advisor is advisable.


Structured notes are complex instruments that require a deep understanding and sophisticated financial models for accurate valuation. Investors should be aware that the pricing models used may not account for all possible market scenarios, adding another layer of risk. Therefore, consulting a financial advisor with expertise in structured products is highly recommended. This is not a do-it-yourself investment and requires professional guidance.


Structured notes offer a unique investment opportunity, blending features of both fixed income and derivatives. They can be tailored for growth or income strategies and come in various forms, each with its own set of risks and rewards. However, their complexity and associated risks make it imperative for potential investors to consult with financial advisors before making an investment decision. As with any investment, due diligence is key, and structured notes are no exception. By understanding their intricacies and associated risks, investors can make more informed decisions and potentially find a place for structured notes in their diversified portfolios. They offer a nuanced approach to investment that can be highly beneficial if managed correctly.


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