What Is Government Security?

In the investing world, government security applies to a range of investment products offered by a governmental body. For most readers, the most common type of government security are those items issued by the U.S. Treasury in the form of Treasury bond, bills, and notes.

Government securities come with a promise of the full repayment of invested principal at maturity of the security. Some government securities may also pay periodic coupon or interest payments. These securities are considered conservative investments with a low-risk since they have the backing of the government that issued them.

1:30

Government Security

Government Securities Explained

Government securities are debt instruments that a sovereign government. They sell these products to finance day-to-day governmental operations and provide funding for special infrastructure and military projects. These investments work in much the same way as a corporate debt issue. Corporations issue bonds as a way to gain capital for buying equipment, funding expansion, and paying off other debt. By issuing debt, governments can avoid hiking taxes or cutting other areas of spending in the budget each time they need additional funds for a project.

After issuing government securities, individual and institutional investors will buy them to either hold until maturity or sell to other investors on the secondary bond market. Investors buy and sell previously issued bonds in the market for a variety of reasons. They may be looking to earn interest income from the bond's periodic coupon payments or to allocate a portion of their portfolio into conservative risk-free assets. These investments are often considered a risk-free investment because when it comes time for redemption at maturity, the government can always print more money to satisfy the demand.

However, government securities issued by foreign governments can carry the risk of default, which is the failure of paying back the principal amount invested. If a country's government collapses or there's instability, a default can occur. When purchasing foreign government securities, it's important to weigh the risks, which can include economic, country, and political risks.

Although U.S. government securities or Treasuries are risk-free investments, they tend to pay lower interest rates as compared to corporate bonds. As a result, fixed-rate government securities can pay a lower rate than other securities in a rising rate environment, which is called interest rate risk. Also, the low rate of return may not keep up with rising prices in the economy or the inflation rate.

Key Takeaways

  • Government securities come with a promise of the full repayment of invested principal at maturity of the security.
  • Government securities often pay periodic coupon or interest payments.
  • Government securities are considered conservative investments with a low-risk since they have the backing of the government that issued them.
  • However, these securities may pay a lower rate of interest than corporate bonds.

How U.S. Government Securities are Issued

The U.S. Treasury Department issues government securities through auctions to institutional investors for buying and selling. Retail investors can purchase government securities directly from the Treasury Department’s website, banks, or through brokers. Since most U.S. government securities have the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, default on these products is unlikely.

Controlling Money Supply Through Government Securities

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) controls the flow of money through many policies, one of which is the selling of government bonds. As they sell bonds, they reduce the amount of money in the economy and push interest rates upward. The government can also repurchase these securities, affecting the money supply and influencing interest rates. Called open market operations (OMO) the Federal Reserve (the Fed) buys bonds on the open market, reducing their availability and pushing the price of the remaining bonds up.

As a bond prices rise, bond yields fall driving interest rates in the overall economy lower. New issues of government bonds are also issued at lower yields in the market further driving down interest rates. As a result, The Fed can significantly impact the trajectory of interest rates and bond yields for many years.

The supply of money changes with this buying and selling, as well. When the Fed repurchases Treasuries from investors, the investors deposit the funds in their bank or spend the money elsewhere in the economy. This spending, in turn, stimulates retail sales and spurs economic growth. Also, as money flows into banks through deposits, it allows those banks to use those funds to lend to businesses or individuals, further stimulating the economy.

Pros

  • Government securities can offer a steady stream of interest income

  • Due to their low default risk, government securities tend to be safe-haven plays

  • Some government securities are exempt from state and local taxes

  • Government securities can be bought and sold easily

  • Government securities are available through mutual funds and exchange-traded funds

Cons

  • Government securities offer low rates of return relative to other securities

  • The interest rates of government securities don't usually keep up with inflation

  • Government securities issued by foreign governments can be risky

  • Government securities often pay a lower rate in a rising-rate market

Real World Examples of Government Securities

Savings bonds offer a fixed interest earning over the term of the product. Should an investor hold a savings bond until its maturity they receive the face value of the bond plus any accrued interest based on the fixed interest rate. Once purchased, a savings bond cannot be redeemed for the first 12 months it is held. Also, redeeming a bond within the first five years means the owner will forfeit the months of accrued interest.

T-Bills

Treasury bills (T-Bills) have typical maturities of 4, 8, 13, 26, and 52 weeks. These short-term government securities pay a higher interest rate return as the maturity terms lengthen. For example, March 29, 2019, the yield on the four-week T-bill was 2.39% while the one-year T-bill yielded 2.32%.

Treasury Notes

Treasury notes (T-Notes) have two, three, five, or 10-year maturities making them intermediate-term bonds. These notes pay a fixed-rate coupon or interest payment semiannually and will usually have $1,000 face values. Two and three-year notes have $5,000 face values.

Yields on T-Notes change daily. However, as an example, the 10-year yield closed at 2.406% March 31, 2019. Over a 52-week range, the yield varied between 2.341% and 3.263%. In this 52-week range, yields fell once. Weeks earlier, the Fed signaled they would delay hiking interest rates. This information sent yields lower as investors rushed to buy existing Treasuries.

Treasury Bonds

Treasury bonds (T-Bonds) have maturities of between 10 and 30 years. These investments have $1,000 face values and pay semiannual interest returns. The government uses these bonds to fund deficits in the federal budget. Also, as mentioned earlier, the Fed controls the money supply and interest rates through the buying and selling of this product. The 30-year Treasury bond yield closed at 2.817% March 31, 2019.