Accounts to buy bonds from the government jumped fivefold as yields boomed

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Investors seeking safety from last year’s market havoc went running to Uncle Sam — that is, they opened more than 3 million accounts to buy Treasurys and other bonds directly from the U.S. government.

In 2022, savers created 3.6 million accounts at TreasuryDirect.gov, a website where investors can buy a range of savings bonds and Treasury securities from the U.S. government. That’s up about fivefold from 2021, when investors opened 689,369 accounts on the site.

TreasuryDirect.gov

The spike in investor interest in the website coincides with a couple of key market events.

I bonds

First, savers turned toward Series I savings bonds, an inflation-protected and largely risk-free asset that’s issued by the federal government. The rate on these bonds has two components: a fixed rate of interest and a rate that varies based on inflation.

In May 2022, the Bureau of Fiscal Service announced that I bonds purchased from then through Oct. 28 of that year would earn a composite rate of 9.62% for the first six months after the date of issue. Bonds issued between Nov. 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023, have a rate of 6.89% — which is still attractive, even if it’s lower than last year’s bonanza.

Be aware that individuals buying I bonds through TreasuryDirect are limited to $10,000 in purchases per calendar year. You can buy up to $5,000 in paper I bonds using your tax refund.

Be sure you’re comfortable with tying up some of your funds in an I bond. Though you can cash it in after 12 months, you’ll lose the last 3 months of interest if you redeem it in fewer than five years.

Rising Treasury yields

The Federal Reserve’s rate hiking campaign, which began a year ago, spurred a rise in bond yields. Though this was bad news for people with diversified portfolios – they saw price declines in both fixed income and equities – it was good news for income-focused investors who wanted to buy Treasury securities on the cheap.

Indeed, the yield on the 10-year Treasury started 2022 around 1.5%, but surged to 4% by that fall. The inversion in the yield curve – an event in which yields on near-dated bonds are higher than long-dated issues – has also made Treasury bills especially promising. Consider that a 6-month T-bill has a yield of 4.91%.

Investors can ladder T-bills to extract a little more yield out of otherwise idle cash.

Aside from buying Treasurys through a brokerage firm, you can go directly to TreasuryDirect.gov.

There, you set up an account, link your bank and participate in an auction for Treasurys. Four-week, 8-week, 13-week and 26-week T-bills are auctioned every week. Two-year notes are auctioned monthly and 10-year Treasurys are auctioned every quarter.

Though these bonds are offering attractive yields and are deemed risk-free, investors should be aware that their yield may not keep pace with inflation. They might also miss out on investment opportunities in stocks, so be wary of how much you stash in these government bonds.

CNBC’s Michelle Fox contributed to this story.         

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