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Investors prefer bonds: How sleepy government bonds became the hot investment of 2022

Andrea Hsu and Stacey Vanek Smith purchased a 25 cent postcard with their earnings from investing in a government bond.
Stacey Vanek Smith
Andrea Hsu and Stacey Vanek Smith purchased a 25 cent postcard with their earnings from investing in a government bond.

Move over, crypto. The hot investment of 2022 is way sleepier but a lot more stable. It's U.S. government bonds.

A few weeks ago, so many people scrambled to get in on the asset that they crashed the Treasury's website.

"It's been a wild couple of months here," said David Enna, founder of Tipswatch.com, a site that tracks government bonds. "This is stuff that never gets attention paid to it normally, but they've become very hot."

The 28 cents that could break the budget

Government bonds are loans you make to the government: You buy a bond for four weeks, six months, 10 years, etc., and at the end of that time, Uncle Sam pays you back with a little interest.

And when I say "little," I really mean "little." "People were making a couple of cents a year interest," said Enna.

Fellow reporter Andrea Hsu and I decided to see what was going on for ourselves, so we went halfsies (with our own money) on a $100 government bond that matured after four weeks.

In return for lending the government $100 for four weeks, we earned 28 cents. This, admittedly, sounds puny, but it isn't.

If we'd bought this same bond at the beginning of the year, we would have earned a small fraction of a penny. Now we're getting more than 70 times that.

That's great for us, but bad news for the U.S. government, which has $24 trillion worth of bonds it has to pay back, some of it at these higher interest rates.

In fact, these bond payments got so big in 2022, people are worried they could sink the U.S. into crippling debt or force drastic spending cuts.

And the money the U.S. gets from selling bonds (billions of dollars' worth every week) is a crucial source of funding.

The U.S. needs the money from bonds to keep the lights on, and if it's suddenly having to pay a ton of money to get that money, it is very bad news.

How did this happen?

Along came the Fed

During the early days of COVID, one of the ways the Federal Reserve came to the aid of the U.S. economy was through buying government bonds. The Fed bought these bonds as a way to keep money flowing through the economy (like one part of the government lending money to another part).

But when inflation started looking like a serious problem, Jerome Powell had the Federal Reserve largely stop buying bonds. That sent a little shock wave through the U.S. bond market and forced the Treasury to offer much larger payouts.

Spending the spoils

Andrea and I wanted to do what we could do to help the U.S. economy with our haul of 28 cents. We knew spending it would get it back into the economy faster than anything else.

Luckily, NPR's New York offices are right near Times Square, where there are infinite ways to spend money (as long as you "heart" New York).

Still, finding something for a quarter was not easy: The inflation that helped us get our sweet 28-cent payout has also pushed the price of nearly everything way up.

After visiting several stores, we finally found a souvenir shop offering postcards for a quarter. With sales tax, it came out to just under 28 cents.

There were several options, but we chose one with the Statue of Liberty on it. After all, patriotic capitalism is what government bonds are all about.

And if we buy another couple of bonds, we may eventually have enough money to mail it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.