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Note: I do not actually have millions of dollars, but seemed like a good question.

Let's say you had $10 million dollars in cash in your bank account and you needed it to be a) safe b) liquid and c) invested in a solid investment.

  • First problem: you'd be getting the crappiest interest rate ever right now for your bank account.
  • Second problem: your money is not FDIC insured over $200k or so
  • Third problem: you can't put it into a CD because you need the money to be liquid (or at least available in a week). 1-week CD rates are abysmal.

With that much money, it would seem the smartest investment would be T-bills directly from TreasuryDirect, but you have to buy them at an auction (and shortest term is 13 weeks, so you'd have to stagger your investment).

Has anyone ever participated in an auction? How does it work? (I know the treasurydirect.gov site tries to do a good job of explaining things, but it seems complicated). What problems might happen?

  • 2
    You can always just buy the Treasuries on the secondary market. It's highly competitive, so it's not like you'll really be saving money by using the auction, and you can resell them pretty much any time too. – fennec Aug 17 '10 at 20:52
  • @fennec Can an individual actually do that? Sounds like something you'd need a major bank to do on your behalf. – Michael Pryor Aug 17 '10 at 20:57
  • a brokerage can set you up with bond market access. Certainly when you have 10 million dollars' worth, anyway. – fennec Aug 17 '10 at 21:05
  • .... heck, it looks like brokerages like E-Trade and Charles Schwab let you trade Treasury bonds for free... presumably so they can have the convenience of your business for other trades. – fennec Aug 17 '10 at 21:23
  • TD Ameritrade also lets you trade Treasuries for free. They (and others) may make a market, so they may profit from the spread. – bstpierre Jun 8 '11 at 15:06
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How do treasury auctions work?

First, the US government will issue a notice indicating how much money it would like to borrow. Below is an actual announcement issued by the treasury department that it will be having an auction to raise $23 billion. enter image description here

The announcement indicates the date of the auction (March 8th, 2011 in the example) as well as deadlines for competitive (11:30 AM) and noncompetitive (11:00 AM) bids. If you would like to participate in the auction then your bids must be submitted before these times.

Competitive Bid - the bidder specifies the maximum price they will pay for the security. All treasuries are priced in $100 so bids are submitted in terms of buying a security that will repay the owner $100 when the security matures ($100 is the face or par value).

Noncompetitive Bid - the bidder does not specify any maximum price requirement. These bidders are first in line to be issued a bill but they will get whatever price is determined at auction.

There is a limit of $5 million that can be submitted as a noncompetitive bid per bidder per auction.

For competitive bids any one customer can be awarded a maximum of 35% of the total offering.

In order to better illustrate the mechanics of the auction let's go back to the example. The table below is a hypothetical list of bids for the $23 billion being issued. The bids include the total amount the bidder is willing to purchase as well as the maximum price the bidder will pay based on a $100 par value note.

Bid 1: $5 billion, max price: don't care (noncompete)
Bid 2: $10 billion, max price: don't care (noncompete)
Bid 3: $5 billion, max price: $98
Bid 4: $5 billion, max price: $95
Bid 5: $10 billion, max price: $92
Bid 6: $5 billion, max price: $90

Notice there is a total of $40 billion in bids. The auction is only for $23 billion. This means some bids will go unfilled. The ratio between bids and the amount of the auction is called the bid-to-cover ration. For our example it is 1.74 ($40/$23). A high bid-to-cover ratio indicates a strong demand for the bonds since there are a lot of bidders. A low ratio indicates weak demand. A ratio under 2.0 is considered weak.

The bids are filled in the following manner:

  1. All the noncompetitive bids are filled first. This means Bid 1 and Bid 2 will be filled first. This fills $15 of the $23 billion leaving $8 billion left.
  2. Once all the noncompetitive bids are filled then the competitive bids are filled next starting from the highest max price and proceeding to the lowest until the issue is completely fulfilled. This means Bid 3 will be filled in full. The remaining $3 billion will be issued to Bid 4. For this auction Bid 5 and Bid 6 will go unfilled.
  3. Since Bid 4 was the last accepted competitive bid, its max price will be the price that all (both competitive and noncompetitive) bidders will receive. This price will also determine the yield for this auction which is 5.26% (100-95/95 * 100).

Results of our example auction:

Bid 1: $5 billion, max price: noncompetitive, All $5 billion filled at $95
Bid 2: $10 billion, max price: noncompetitive, All $10 billion filled at $95
Bid 3: $5 billion, max price: $98, All $5 billion filled at $95
Bid 4: $5 billion, max price: $95, Only $3 billion filled at $95
Bid 5: $10 billion, max price: $92, Not filled
Bid 6: $5 billion, max price: $90, Not filled

Once the auction is completed the treasury will post the results of the auction. Below is the actual results of the auction. enter image description here

There are some additional items that are reported from the auction:
High Rate: This is the highest yield (or the lowest price) that was accepted at the auction. For our example this would be $95.
Allotted at High: This is the percentage of the total that was filled at the highest accepted yield (or lowest accepted price). For our example, the last $3 billion we filled was at the lowest price so our allotment at high would be $3/$23 = 13%.
Price: Price as determined by the auction.
Median Rate: Half of the competitive bids were submitted below this rate while the other half were above.
Low Rate: The lowest yield (or highest price) submitted for the competitive bids.

The announcement also shows the breakdown of the amount of bids submitted noncompetitively versus competitively and how much was rewarded for those same categories.

There is an entry in the middle of the results announcement listed as SOMA. This stands for System Open Market Account. This represents treasuries that are held by the Federal Reserve. If the Federal Reserve has treasuries that are maturing then it is expected that they will use the proceeds from those maturing treasuries to buy new treasuries. For our example auction the FED had no bills maturing at the time. If they did then the FED would also get the same price determined at the auction.

Here is an article I wrote with a little more detail on the auction process. I've included my sources at the end of the article.

As for treasuries being a "safe" investment? I'm not so sure. Right now the yield on 10 years is around 2.5%. Who, in their right mind, would lend money to the government for 10 years at 2.5%? Not me.

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    @Muro Not repaying in gold does not equal default even if that was the agreement between nations. The gold standard is dangerous and leaves countries susceptible to "runs" on gold. Manipulating the gold market is easy, and with the size of institutions today, I wouldn't trust them for a second. I'm sure you remember the Hunt brothers. Think of that times a thousand. I'm also sure you realize that printing money != inflation. There are far more factors that influence the money supply. – cgp Aug 19 '10 at 20:14
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    Which is more private and accountable to the people of the United States?: Individuals and corporations or the elected federal government? You can be cynical as you want, but for all their faults and failings, congress still answers to the American people (as flawed as the American people can be as well). So, while the FED manipulates the money supply, it does so for the purposes of a mandate established by the people: create secure, stable markets. The FEDs motives and actions have proven over a nearly 100 year history to generally do the right thing. (see economic history prior to the FED) – cgp Aug 20 '10 at 5:43
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    The only person accountable for me is me. The FED creates secure, stable markets? I guess the S&L banking crisis, Long Term Capital Management, Great Depression, inflations of the 70's, tech boom, and the latest crisis can all be ignored. Prior to the FED Americans were FREE to use whatever currency they wanted. Talk about a way to create secure, stable markets. – Muro Aug 20 '10 at 12:14
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    @altCognito (and Muro as well, who will get a notification as I am posting a comment to his answer) While I would enjoy reading more of this debate and would even enjoy taking part, this is not the proper venue for such a discussion, it is off the topic of how one participates in Treasury auctions and it is quite argumentative. – George Marian Aug 20 '10 at 14:21
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    @George - alright mom, we'll stop fighting. :) – Muro Aug 20 '10 at 15:19
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I'd advise you to use a broker. Even a discount broker like Charles Schwab would do.

First, they would do the "trades" purchase/sale, on your behalf, using parameters you specify (and also tell you where the "market" is at any given time).

Second, they may sell you bills of a desirable term (e.g. six weeks) of out their own inventory.

Third, they will lend you money (50% or more) against your holdings, so you'll have some money when you need it, and the balance when the bills mature.

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    +1 -- Fourth, you will be able to liquidate your holdings much more easily. You can't sell through Treasury Direct, you'd have to transfer the securities to your broker first anyway. That wouldn't be much fun in a situation where you're so in need of cash that you have to liquidate. – bstpierre Jun 8 '11 at 16:56
  • @bstpierre: Fair enough. – Tom Au Jun 9 '11 at 15:58
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If all of the money needs to be liquid, T-Bills from a broker are the way to go. Treasury Direct is a little onerous -- I'm not sure that you could actually get money out of there in a week.

If you can sacrifice some liquidity, I'd recommend a mix of treasury, brokered CDs, agency and municipal securities.

The government has implicitly guaranteed that "too big to fail" entities are going to be backed by the faith & credit of the United States, so investments in general obligation bonds from big states like New York, California and Florida and cities like New York City will yield you better returns, come with significant tax benefits, and represent only marginal additional short-term risk.

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