Feds change how they borrow . . . for now

KAI RYSSDAL: If you think the average consumer's got debt problems, allow me to introduce you to the government of the United States of America.

Uncle Sam's what you might call a chronic borrower. It pays for those loans with Treasury bonds or notes. There's not much real difference between a note and bond, by the way...just the length of maturity.

Anyway, today we say goodbye to the three-year Treasury note. The government says the budget deficit's improved to the point that the Feds no longer need it. But Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports investors shouldn't get too sentimental. The thing hasn't even been buried yet, and some market-watchers are already talking about a resurrection.


JEFF TYLER: Back in 2003, when the Treasury started offering the three-year note, the U.S. budget deficit hovered around $400 billion.

Fast-forward to today, that deficit has been cut in half, so the Feds don't need to borrow as much. And given the changes in interest rates, Mark Zandi with Moody's Economy.com says the cost of a three-year note versus a 30-year note boils down to a fraction of a percentage point.

MARK ZANDI: Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be issuing three-year bonds when you can get the same interest rate on a 10-year or 30-year bond.

Historically speaking, it's relatively cheap for the government to borrow long-term money.

David Wyss, chief economist with Standard & Poors, says that gives the Feds less incentive to borrow short-term.

DAVID WYSS: Given that interest rates right now look low, it would make sense to continue borrowing as long a term as possible. Lock-in those low rates while we can.

But don't expect this to be a lasting trend. Economist Mark Zandi can already see ballooning deficits on the horizon.

ZANDI: If you look out a couple, three, five years down the road, all indications are that the deficit is going to be measurably larger and growing. The Treasury is going to need to issue a lot of bonds, and the three-year will be back. So this is only a temporary good-bye. It's not a permanent one.

When the baby boomers start retiring, he says, the government will need to borrow heavily to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And the three-year Treasury note is expected to look attractive again.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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