Planet Money
11:26 pm
Thu October 17, 2013

I Lent $999.78 To The Federal Government*

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 9:29 am

Earlier this week, I bought a Treasury bill.

Everybody calls Treasury bills T-bills, and they work like this: The government promises to pay holders of T-bills a specific amount on a specific day in the near future. For the T-bill I bought, the government promised to pay $1,000 on Oct. 31.

I bought the T-bill on Tuesday, before Congress had made the debt-ceiling deal, so it was unclear whether I would get paid back on time.

If people are worried about a bond, the price tends to fall. But, despite all the news about about possible default, my T-bill — which promises to pay a total of $1,000 — was selling for $999.78 on Tuesday. I stood to make exactly 22 cents on my big investment.

The immediate default danger has now passed, of course. But one of the fears was that the mere fact that the U.S. was flirting with default would drive up the interest rates the government had to pay to borrow money.

Default fears did drive up interest rates a little — and those higher rates probably cost the government somewhere around $50 million, and possibly as much as $100 million, according to Francis Longstaff, a finance professor at UCLA. In the context of the U.S. debt, that's a small number, he says.

Since Congress passed the debt-ceiling deal, investors' small fear of default seems to have gone away. That boring T-bill I bought has become even more boring. At the end of the day Thursday, it was selling for $999.99. If you bought it at that price, your profit in two weeks would be one penny.

*Technically, I didn't lend money directly to the government. I bought the T-bill from someone else. The person who bought the T-bill when it was first issued was the one who actually loaned the money to the government.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Earlier this week, David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team did something that seemed a little risky. He called up a broker and made an investment.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONECALL)

PETER: Hey David. How are ya?

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Hey. How are ya? Good.

PETER: Very well, thanks. Been waiting for your call. You were looking to buy a treasury bond I understand?

GREENE: That's David talking with an employee at the online brokerage firm Etrade. Now, the reason buying a treasury bond might have seemed dicey is that at the time it looked like the government might default on its debt, which meant people who owned Treasury bonds might not get paid back. David now has the story of what happened to that bond and what it tells us about our brush with default.

KESTENBAUM: The thing I bought is technically called a T-bill. It's a short term loan to the U.S. government. The way T-bills work is that if you have one, the government is supposed to pay you a specific amount of money on a specific day. If you own this Tbill the government is promising to give you $1000 in a couple weeks, on October 31st. I told the guy at Etrade - his name is Peter - that's the one I want.

PETER: We're going to preview the order. We are going to buy one $1000 face value of...

KESTENBAUM: If people are worried about a bond. You see it reflected in the price. If, for instance, people are really worried they might not get that $1000 on the 31st of October they won't pay as much for the bond. And the price will drop. So with all the fear about U.S. default - what was this $1000 bond selling for — $800, $900? Nope. I had to pay I had to pay $999.78.

Meaning I stood to make exactly 22 cents on my big investment. This had to be the most boring thing Peter had helped anyone buy all day.

PETER: Does that all sound good to you, the one you wanted?

KESTENBAUM: I'm not going to make a lot of money on this.

PETER: Definitely not.

KESTENBAUM: What this means is yes, some investors were worried that the U.S. might not be able to pay this thing on time, but not that many.

PETER: All right. I'm putting the order through for you right now. You'll see it in your account shortly.

KESTENBAUM: The immediate danger of default has now passed, of course. But one of the fears was that the mere fact that the U.S. was flirting with default might cost the U.S. and taxpayers money. Francis Longstaff is a finance professor at UCLA. I asked him to calculate how much the standoff in Congress had cost the U.S. and taxpayers through higher interest rates on our debt.

He looked at all the treasury bills the government issued since the beginning of October. And the answer? The additional damage from our flirting with default?

FRANCIS LONGSTAFF: A very wide upper bound on the potential impact is going to be on range of $75 to $100 million.

KESTENBAUM: In the scheme of things, he says, that is a very small number. The U.S. debt is trillions of dollars. Since the debt ceiling deal that small fear investors apparently had about certain treasury bonds seems to have gone away. That boring bond that I bought has become even more boring. At the end of the day yesterday it was selling for $999.99 Meaning your profit in two weeks' time would be one penny. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.