ADVERTISEMENT

Savings bonds are safe despite 'fiscal cliff' anxieties

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • November 3, 2012 - 4:36 PM

Q I have about $385,000 of U.S. savings bonds. About half of the value is principal, the other half is deferred interest. Most are I bonds purchased early in the program, which have a 3 percent fixed interest rate (or higher) component. The EE bonds are at a 4 percent rate. 

I don't need the money, and I like the interest rates in this low interest rate environment, but the issue is the gigantic debt of our country and the impending debt ceiling debate coming soon in the Congress. I'm thinking of starting to liquidate some of the bonds because I don't know what to expect. What's your take? Could the U.S. default, and what does that mean for my investment?

ARTHUR, MINNEAPOLIS

A My bottom line is that your U.S. savings bonds are safe and remain a solid investment. Sad to say, there could be a nerve-racking moment or two after the election. Nevertheless, I still like savings bonds for individual savers, and the government will make good on the loans.

Now, two years ago I would have written -- and did write -- the notion the U.S. government might default on its debt was laughable. You've got to be kidding, right?

We're the wealthiest nation ever and U.S. Treasuries (and U.S. savings bonds) are the world's safest securities. Every investment primer uniformly describes U.S. Treasuries as the world's benchmark default-free blue-chip investment. Translation: It's as safe as it gets. Case in point: The global flight to financial safety over the past five turbulent years is a major factor behind extraordinarily low U.S. interest rates.

That said, the U.S. government came much too close to default for comfort last summer. The trigger for how the unthinkable became even remotely possible was the imminent breaching of the government's debt ceiling limit. Tea Party advocates in Congress and their allies were willing to contemplate the default option. The risk of default was averted but the brinkmanship damaged a frail economy. The compromise that averted a crisis last year is this year's so-called fiscal cliff, the $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts that go into effect next year without a budget deal.

In other words, we face the prospect of another round of unnecessary default talk once the election is over. The Obama administration said on Wednesday that the Treasury would reach its legal limit on its debt before the end of the year. But a number of cash management maneuvers can stave off a default until early next year. Still, I believe even threats of default are deeply wrong considering how many retirees are dependent on Social Security payments, with our military at war in Afghanistan, the obligation to meet the federal payroll and the reliance of global savers on U.S. Treasuries.

The bottom line of default on workers, their families and savers is summarized in a simple phrase: "Not good."

Why do I recommend keeping your savings bonds? It's important to remember that the odds are still good that despite threats the government will steer clear of default and, if the unthinkable happens, it will eventually make good on its debts. The pressure from global business and global investors will be too great for Washington to not make good on its obligations. In this sense your investments in U.S. Treasuries remains safe.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

© 2014 Star Tribune