Government Bond: What It Is, Types, Pros and Cons

What Is a Government Bond?

A government bond is a debt security issued by a government to support government spending and obligations. Government bonds can pay periodic interest payments called coupon payments. Government bonds issued by national governments are often considered low-risk investments since the issuing government backs them.

Government bonds issued by a federal government may also be known as sovereign debt.

Key Takeaways

  • A government bond represents debt that is issued by a government and sold to investors to support government spending.
  • Some government bonds may pay periodic interest payments. Other government bonds do not pay coupons and are sold at a discount instead.
  • Government bonds are considered low-risk investments since the government backs them.
  • The various types of bonds that are offered by the U.S. Treasury are considered to be among the safest in the world.
  • Because of their relatively low risk, government bonds typically pay low interest rates.
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Government Bond

Government Bonds Explained

Government bonds are issued by governments to raise money to finance projects or day-to-day operations. The U.S. Treasury Department sells the issued bonds during auctions at regular intervals throughout the year. Only certain registered participants, often large banks, can buy U.S. government bonds directly at auction. When the government holds a bond auction, each buyer submits its purchase bid, and the auction continues until all the bonds are duly distributed.

Some Treasury bonds trade in the secondary market. Individual investors, working with a financial institution or broker, can buy and sell previously issued bonds through this marketplace. Treasuries are widely available for purchase through the U.S. Treasury, brokers, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which contain a basket of securities.

Fixed-rate government bonds can have interest rate risk, which occurs when interest rates are rising and investors are holding lower paying fixed-rate bonds as compared to the market. Also, only select bonds keep up with inflation, which is a measure of price increases throughout the economy. If a fixed-rate government bond pays 2% per year, for example, and prices in the economy rise by 1.5%, the investor is earning only 0.5% in real terms.

Municipal Government Bonds

Local governments may also issue bonds to fund projects such as infrastructure, libraries, or parks. These are known as municipal bonds, or "munis," and often carry certain tax advantages and exemptions for investors.

Munis can be thought of as loans that investors make to local governments, and they are used to fund public works such as parks, libraries, bridges and roads, and other infrastructure. They may be funded via local tax dollars or by revenue generated from the project (e.g. a toll road).

Although municipal bonds may have lower interest rates than riskier investments like corporate bonds or stocks, they offer some stability and low default rates.

Bond Terms to Know

If you are interested in government bonds, you may want to acquaint yourself with the following terms:

  • Face or Par Value: the amount of debt you are loaning the government and the amount you will get back when the bond matures
  • Coupon: the regular interest payments credited to bondholders
  • Yield: the interest rate on the bond after accounting for its market price
  • Market Price: the price of the bond in the secondary market, which may differ from the face value
  • Treasuries: U.S. federal government bonds
  • T-Bill: short-term Treasuries, maturing in 1 year or less
  • T-Note: medium-term Treasuries, maturing in 2 to 10 years
  • T-Bond: long-term Treasuries maturing in 10 to 30 years or longer
  • TIPS: Treasuries that are indexed to inflation

The U.S. vs. Foreign Government Bonds

U.S. Treasuries are nearly as close to risk-free as an investment can get. This low risk profile is because the issuing government backs the bonds. Government bonds from the U.S. Treasury are some of the most secure worldwide, while those floated by other countries may carry a greater degree of risk.

Due to this nearly risk-free nature, market participants and analysts use Treasuries as a benchmark in comparing the risk associated with securities. The 10-year Treasury bond is also used as a benchmark and guide for interest rates on lending products. Due to their low risk, U.S. Treasuries tend to offer lower rates of return relative to equities and corporate bonds.

However, government-backed bonds, particularly those in emerging markets, can carry risks that include country risk, political risk, and central-bank risk, including whether the banking system is solvent. Investors saw a bleak reminder of how risky some government bonds can be during the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998. During this crisis, several Asian nations were forced to devalue their currency, which sent reverberations around the globe. The crisis even caused Russia to default on its debt.

The Uses of Government Bonds

Government bonds assist in funding deficits in the federal budget and are used to raise capital for various projects such as infrastructure spending. However, government bonds are also used by the Federal Reserve Bank to control the nation's money supply.

When the Federal Reserve repurchases U.S. government bonds, the money supply increases throughout the economy as sellers receive funds to spend or invest in the market. Any funds deposited into banks are, in turn, used by those financial institutions to loan to companies and individuals, further boosting economic activity.

Pros and Cons of Government Bonds

As with all investments, government bonds provide both benefits and disadvantages to the bondholder. On the upside, these debt securities tend to return a steady stream of interest income. However, this return is usually lower than other products on the market due to the reduced level of risk involved in their investments. 

The market for U.S. government bonds is very liquid, allowing the holder to resell them on the secondary bond market easily. There are even ETFs and mutual funds that focus their investment on Treasury bonds.

Fixed rate bonds may fall behind during periods of increasing inflation or rising market interest rates. Also, foreign bonds are exposed to sovereign or governmental risk, changes in currency rates, and have a higher risk of default. 

Some U.S. Treasury bonds are free of state and federal taxes. However, the investor of foreign bonds may face taxes on income from these foreign investments.

Pros
  • Pay a steady interest income return

  • Low risk of default for U.S. bonds

  • Exempt from state and local taxes

  • A liquid market for reselling

  • Assessable through mutual funds and ETFs

Cons
  • Offer low rates of return 

  • Fixed income falls behind with rising inflation

  • Carry risk when market interest rates increase

  • Default and other risks on foreign bonds

Examples of U.S. Government Bonds

There are various types of bonds offered by the U.S. Treasury that have various maturities. In addition, some bonds return regular interest payments, while some do not. In the U.S., the national debt refers largely to the notional value of outstanding government bonds. The largest portion of the national debt, approximately $24.2 trillion, is held by the public. Intragovernmental holdings make up approximately $6.6 trillion, for a total debt of approximately $30.9 trillion as of Q3 2022.

Savings Bonds

The U.S. Treasury offers series EE bonds and series I savings bonds. Bonds sell at face value and have a fixed rate of interest. Bonds held for 20 years will reach their face value and effectively double. Series I bonds receive a semi-annually calculated secondary rate tied to an inflation rate.

Treasury Notes

Treasury notes (T-notes) are intermediate-term bonds maturing in two, three, five, or 10 years that provide fixed coupon returns. T-Notes typically have a $1,000 face value. However, two- or three-year maturities have a $5,000 face value.

Treasury Bonds

Treasury bonds (T-Bonds) are long-term bonds having a maturity between 10 to 30 years. T-Bonds give interest or coupon payments semi-annually and have $1,000 face values. The bonds help to offset shortfalls in the federal budget. Also, they help to regulate the nation's money supply and execute U.S. monetary policy.

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)

Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS) are a Treasury security indexed to inflation. They protect investors from the adverse effects of rising prices. The par value—principal—increases with inflation and decreases with deflation, following the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

TIPS pay a fixed rate of interest determined on the bond's auction on a six months basis. However, interest payment amounts vary since the rate applies to the adjusted principal value of the bond. TIPS have maturities of five, 10, and 30 years. On Nov. 19, 2020, the 10-year TIPS bond was auctioned with an interest rate of -0.867%.

Buying vs. Trading Bonds

If you buy government bonds and hold them until maturity, you will enjoy regular coupon (interest) payments and a return of your initial investment when they mature. During that time, however, the price of a government bond will fluctuate in the market. Bond prices have an inverse relationship with interest rates⁠—so when interest rates go up, government bond prices go down in the secondary market. Because of this, shorter-term investors who do not buy and hold bonds until maturity can experience gains or losses in the market. Bond traders can also look to profit from the relative differences in the yields of certain bonds, known as the spread⁠—for instance, the spread between U.S. Treasuries and highly rated corporate bonds. Another bond trading strategy is to bet on changes in the spread between different maturities, known as the yield curve.

Government bonds can provide a combination of considerable safety and relatively high returns. However, investors need to be aware that governments sometimes lack the ability or willingness to pay back their debts.

How Do You Buy Government Bonds?

U.S. Treasury securities are available to investors through their broker or bank, or directly through the TreasuryDirect website. Investors can also look to ETFs or mutual funds that invest in Treasuries. Municipal bonds are available via your broker.

How Do Government Bonds Work?

When governments need to raise funds for operations (e.g. paying government employees or servicing interest charges on existing debt) or to invest in projects (e.g., building federal highways), they can sell bonds to investors. In the U.S. case, bonds are sold through the Treasury and represent debt owned by bondholders. These bondholders are credited with interest and a return of their principal when the bond matures. This makes bondholders of Treasuries essentially creditors (lenders) to the federal government.

Why Are Interest Rates on Government Bonds Usually Lower than Other Bonds?

Bonds issued by the federal government are considered to be essentially riskless. In the U.S., the federal government has never defaulted on its debt, and the government could theoretically create more money or raise taxes in order to pay for the interest on existing debts to avoid default. Therefore, Treasuries carry what is known as the risk-free rate of return. Corporate and other bonds must carry higher yields to compensate investors for the additional credit risk that are inherent to them.

What Are U.S. Government Bond Types?

The U.S. government has a variety of different Treasury securities available for purchase depending on what the investor is looking for. The different offerings of the securities are Treasury Bills, Treasury Notes, Treasury Bonds, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), Floating Rate Notes (FRNs), Series I Savings Bonds, and Series EE Savings Bonds.

What Are Example of Non-U.S. Government Bonds?

Foreign governments around the world issue debt in the form of bonds. Some of these commonly include:

  • The U.K.: Gilts
  • Germany: Bunds
  • France: OATs
  • Japan: JGBs
  • Italy: BTPs
  • Canada: Canada Bonds

The Bottom Line

Government bonds issued by federal governments are among the safest investments around, often carrying the risk-free rate of return. However, because of their lower risk, they also carry relatively lower yields. In the U.S., federal bonds are known as Treasuries, which consist of short-term T-Bills, medium-term T-Notes, and long-term T-bonds. Foreign governments also regularly issue bonds. State and local governments may also issue bonds in the form of municipal bonds (munis). These are attractive to some investors since they can offer certain tax exemptions.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of the Treasury, FiscalData. "Debt to the Penny."

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