Treasury Weighs Sale of Money-Losing Bonds

Would you pay more for a Treasury security than it's worth?

The U.S. Treasury Department is betting yes. And it's mulling an odd idea -- whether to begin offering securities on the primary market at negative yields. For example, an investor might pay $1,010 for a $1,000 Treasury bill. The result: Investors get back less money than their original investment when they hold the Treasury to maturity.

The Treasury Department plans to make its final decision by May.

Why is the government considering this far-fetched tactic? Treasuries already have sold at negative yields on the secondary market, where investors buy and sell securities with other investors. But currently, the government can't sell its own negative-yielding bonds in primary markets.

The result: The Treasury is leaving money on the table, says Paul Jacobs, a Certified Financial Planner at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta.

That's why the Treasury is considering the sale of negative-yielding securities. The government would be paid by investors to finance the massive government debt -- $15.7 trillion in mid-April.

"Negative yields are a smart way for the Treasury to be borrowing," adds Brian Evans, founder of Everett, Wash.-based Madrona Funds, which offers exchange-traded funds.

Negative Territory

Negative-yielding securities are nothing new. On the heels of the financial crisis in 2008, bond yields in the secondary market dipped into negative territory, and they've returned there off and on.

"Negative yields are a sign of the times," says Aaron Smith, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics. "People want to park money in Treasuries and have quick access."

There's usually demand when people are fearful, Evans says. Last year, skittish investors returned to Treasuries, even negative-yielding bonds, as they fled European investments.

But beware of being driven by fear when investing, Evans says. A negative-yielding bond has no possibility of upside and lots of downside, he says. "You're guaranteed to lose principal and not keep pace with inflation," Evans says.

For example, if interest rates rise, your Treasury security could sink even further into the red on the secondary market.

There are better choices. Besides Treasuries, money already is flocking to short-term investments, says Donald Cummings, founder of Blue Haven Capital in Geneva, Ill. The reason: Investors are overly worried about rising interest rates, he says. Staying on the short end of the maturity curve helps avoid losses because bond prices decline when interest rates rise.

Parking Money

Before parking your money, consider your liquidity needs, Cummings says. Bank CDs and money market accounts are usually safe -- and sometimes higher-yielding -- alternatives to Treasuries, and they're insured up to $250,000 per depositor. Meanwhile, three-month Treasuries were yielding only 0.09% as of mid-April.

Be sure to avoid investing in long-term Treasury bonds, Jacobs says. These bonds can tie up your money in low-yielding investments when interest rates start rising again.

As for negative-yielding securities, put them at the bottom of your list, Evans says.