I Will Guarantee Your Treasury Bonds

I have managed to go since August 20th without mentioning Brett Arends of the Wall Street Journal. It hasn’t been easy, but for 59 posts I have stayed on the wagon. Until now. Arends’ Wednesday column was just too strong a temptation. It had the siren-call title of "Are Your U.S. Treasury Bonds Safe?" How am I supposed to ignore that? I US-Treasury-Smallam only human.

Needless to say, the column lacked a yes/no answer to its headline. Sure, "Standard financial theory defines "the risk-free rate of return" on money as the rate of return you can earn on Treasurys" but this time is different: the government is now in the control of politicians who like to spend money and don’t like to raise taxes.

But as the U.S. government piles borrowing atop more borrowing, it begs a financial question that is not utterly ridiculous: Are your U.S. Treasury bonds safe?


Okay, I have two objections to this. First, when I misuse "begs the question" somebody from the Begs The Question Police points out my error in the comments within hours. Why the walk for Arends?

Second, there is a big difference between a question that is "not utterly ridiculous" and one that doesn’t have an iron-clad obvious answer. "What time is it?" comes to mind.

Treasuries are risk-free because it is essentially inconceivable that the government will not pay them off as promised. In fact, it is simply impossible for the government not to be able to do so. It has the power to invent dollars out of thin air, so if it came to it the government could make good by just printing money. (Those dollars may not be worth anything, but that’s a different problem.)

Any scenario in which the government defaults is really a repudiation scenario, in which it can pay what it owes but chooses not to. Sort of a strategic default writ large, except that the Feds won’t be handing over any keys to the creditors.

I will admit that such a scenario is conceivable, in the sense that we can invent an imaginable narrative that ends up with a US debt repudiation.  The same is true for scenarios of Earth being invaded by robotic aliens. The government stiffing its creditors would take a Dr. Strangelove-like series of well placed madmen in Washington, and possibly the help of a few villains from early James Bond movies. (The old good ones starring Sean Connery, not the new bad ones starring Vladimir Putin.)

Alas, as I have pointed out in my discussions of lotteries and the like, we all have difficulty dismissing the possibility of anything that we can imagine. Arends based his piece on recent prices for credit default swaps (CDSs) on Treasuries.

(In case you have already forgotten, a CDS is an insurance policy on a bond, basically a third party guarantee that the debtor will pay. Think of it as hiring somebody to cosign a loan you are making to a shaky borrower.)

I am going to admit that I was surprised that CDSs on Treasuries existed at all. So you can imagine my shock at finding out that the going rate is, according to Arends, 0.34%, meaning that to insure $1M in treasures against default in 2010, it will cost you $3,400. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that the bonds may be yielding only 2% to begin with.

And it gets worse. Again according to figures Arends cites, it would cost 3% of principal to insure Treasuries for five years. This is nothing more than price gouging and I am not going to sit idly by while it happens.

So I am here announcing that I, Frank Curmudgeon, will guarantee up to $1 Billion in US Treasury Bonds against default for five years, for the low low price of only 1%. That’s right, the first investor to wire me $10M gets the peace of mind that only a guarantee against default can bring.

Cynics amongst you might object that I don’t have $1B to make good if need be. That’s a valid point. But the same problem exists for anybody writing CDSs on Treasuries.

A US Government default would be a financial Armageddon on the scale of, well, the Earth being invaded by robotic aliens. I should have a good analogy here involving Lehman Brothers but I am having trouble coming up with one that really captures the sense of scale. US default is to Lehman bankruptcy as the Hindenburg is to a twenty minute air traffic delay?

US debt, from the reserves held by the Chinese government to the little pieces of paper with pictures of US presidents used as money, is a big part of the foundation of the global economy. Take that away and the whole thing comes tumbling down. When Lehman went under panicked investors bought Treasuries. If the Treasuries ever become worthless, buy automatic weapons and ammunition.

Not to dissuade any of my potential customers, but you would have to have a hole in your head to think that a CDS on US Treasury debt would ever be paid off. (I am dying to find out that AIG is one of the outfits selling CDSs on Treasuries. If you don’t think that would be funny, consider who is currently backing them up.)

Yes, your US Treasury Bonds are safe. Inflation may mean that the dollars you eventually get paid are not worth as much as you hoped, but you will get paid. That’s as certain as anything can ever be.


  • By Jim, December 11, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    Very well said Frank. Thanks.

    I’ve had to reassure my father that the government won’t default or fail in various ways. But he’s a massive cynic who’d just as likely bury his money in the backyard. I’m amazed that so called financial experts pay for insurnce on treasures.

    You are right if treasuries ever default then the it would be a total economic armageddon.

  • By Mike Piper, December 11, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    Are the US Treasury CDS denominated in dollars? That is, is the promise that the seller of the CDS will use US government obligations to repay defaulted US government obligations?

  • By Adam, December 11, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    Yes! Yes! YES! I have repeated this often in the past few months to people warning me that the government is going to go bankrupt. Usually, it is greeted with blank stares. I don’t know why it is so difficult to understand.

  • By Craig, December 11, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Well, yes, it’s quite conceivable that the U.S. Government will fail to make good on Treasuries at some point in the future–but only in scenarios in which the U.S. Government has ceased to exist as a sovereign power.

    World War III and massive asteroid strikes and the like, however, while perfectly possible, basically short every other concern to ground, so they’re scarcely worth worrying about in a financial context.

    And of course you don’t hedge against waking up in a “Mad Max” movie with CDS–you hedge against that with shotguns and canned goods.

  • By The Incidental Economist, December 11, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    Bravo! So good. So good.

  • By kosmo @ The Casual Observer, December 11, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    I don’t have the stats at my fingertips, but, anecdotally, it seems that most of the time that a country defaults on debt is when there is a major shakeup in the government (a coup, for example). Changes in the US government tend to be fairly gradual when compared to some other countries. As strange as it sounds, the Democrats and Republicans have quite a bit in common.

    If the US files for bankruptcy, do we get to keep the White House under the homestead exemption?

  • By Craig, December 11, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    You know, I just took the time to read the whole article, and it makes even less sense now. Here’s how the author answers the objection that there’s no reason th U.S. would willingly default on Treasuries when it can just print dollars:

    “For investors, the greatest danger is not that America could formally default on its debts, it’s that the government may informally default by unleashing inflation.”

    So, again, CDS make sense because…? Or are these people buing some new product called Credit Informal-Default Swaps?

    I really can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to insure Treasuries against default. I’d just as soon buy supernova insurance on the Sun.

  • By Kathy F, December 11, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    But some in Congress are now arguing against raising the debt ceiling limit. “Treasury officials have told congressional leaders that they must raise the cap before Dec. 31 or risk running out of money for Social Security checks and veterans’ payments due in early January, Democrats said. By law, the Treasury can borrow no more than Congress legally permits. ”

  • By Dasha, December 11, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    I am SO GLAD that someone else thinks that the new James Bond totally looks like Putin.

  • By Neil, December 11, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    It’s an important industry. AIG has to sell CDSs on US debt, so they can pay back the money they ower the government, so that in turn the government can pay their bonds without making the dollar worthless. Buyers of these things are suckers, sure, but at least their suckers for a good cause.

  • By Rob Bennett, December 14, 2009 @ 7:42 am

    Yes, your US Treasury Bonds are safe. Inflation may mean that the dollars you eventually get paid are not worth as much as you hoped, but you will get paid. That’s as certain as anything can ever be.

    This is a word game.

    If you are paid a penny for something you bought thinking that it was worth $1, you’ve lost something real. For practical purposes, the government failed to honor its promise in such circumstances.

    We should be talking about what we have done to put ourselves in such circumstances rather than playing word games in which we try to persuade ourselves that a payment of a penny for a dollar is in some technical sense not a default. It’s when we start talking seriously about these matters that we will be able to begin the process of coming up with serious solutions to our serious problems.


  • By David @ MBA briefs, December 20, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    Excellent post – I like your writing style.

    I read the WSJ article and it appears to me Arends was trying to sensationalize the article to get readers (and it worked). He tried to make a correlation between an increase in default insurance and rising government debt and the probability of inflation devaluing the worth of treasury bonds. His arguments are tenuous at best and I think his article was really more of a rant against government spending and he threw the piece on bonds in there to justify the article.

    You missed commenting on the “not utterly ridiculous” part – isn’t he admitting it is ridiculous?

  • By Shrips, March 9, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    CDS protects against a Credit Event and that is why there is a market for these. Credit Events need not be outright default.

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