What investors love about the Treasury’s new toy – it floats!

Paddy Hirsch Jan 29, 2014

The U.S. Treasury rolls out a brand new toy today. Now, we’re talking about the Treasury here, which means the toy is a kind of bond, but investors are excited for a couple of reasons. It’s the first new product the Treasury has released in years, so there’s a novelty appeal. And, unlike all of the rest of the Treasury’s products, this toy floats!

Q. OK, you’ve got me intrigued. What is it?

The new product is a so-called “floating rate note,” with a maturity of two years. A note is essentially the same thing as a bond, but under a different name. Any Treasury debt that has an “intermediate” maturity of 2-to-10 years gets the name “note.”

Q. And why are we hearing about it now?

Treasury needs a floating rate because it wants to raise more money, and this kind of debt will attract a different kind of investor. Also, some investors are worried about buying too many Treasuries right now because Treasury bonds, notes, and bills come with fixed interest rates. And that means they lose value when inflation kicks in, or if interest rates go up (which they almost certainly will). A floating-rate note offsets those problems.

Q. I’m following. But all this stuff can be so complicated. Does this thing work?

Picture, for a moment, a peaceful bay in the Caribbean… Ah, yes.

Now watch the tide: it goes in and out, which means that in the center of the bay, the distance between the surface of the water and the sandy bottom beneath is constantly changing.

What’s that floating in the middle of the bay? A pirate ship! With a real, live pirate!

The pirate is hanging out in the crow’s nest, which is 250 feet above the surface of the water. But his elevation above the sea bottom changes with the tide.

He’s floating, in other words — at a fixed distance from the water, but a varying distance above the sea floor.

A floating-rate note works in the same way. The interest rate on the note is like the pirate in his crow’s nest. It floats a fixed amount above a reference rate, which varies constantly. It goes up and down, just like the distance between the sea bottom and the water’s surface as the tide goes in and out. The reference rate goes up? The interest rate rises a fixed rate above it. The reference rate goes down, and the interest rate lowers accordingly.

The reference rate can be anything that is based on a market rate. Sometimes it’s the prime rate; sometimes it’s the infamous LIBOR; sometimes it’s the federal funds rate.

Floating rate notes are a great investment — if you think interest rates are going to rise. Say you buy the note when it pays 2 percent above LIBOR. If LIBOR is 1 percent, you’re making 3 percent. If LIBOR increases to 2 percent, suddenly you’re making 4 percent. Awesome!

With interest rates at historic lows, interest rates are pretty much bound to rise. Good news for investors. And good news for a Treasury that wants to raise more money. But just like the tide, LIBOR, or any other reference rate can go down as well as up. And leave investors stranded.

As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.