Here is quick walkthrough from buying a (roughly) 1-year Treasury bond on the secondary market via my Fidelity brokerage account. Please note that I am not a professional bond trader nor a tax professional, and I won’t be able to cover every detail. I maintain part of my portfolio bond allocation in roughly a 5-year bond/CD ladder, comparing and buying the top rate amongst US Treasuries, bank CDs, and credit union certificates across the country as they are all fully-backed by the US government. This guarantees that every year, at least 20% of it is liquid and available in adverse conditions like job loss.
Treasury bonds vs. certificates of deposit. First, you’ll want to compare your Treasury bond effective yield against bank CD rates. At the time of this writing, 1-year Treasury was at ~3.10% while the top brokered 1-year CD was at 3% APY. Due to my local/state tax situation, the after-tax Treasury bond rate was comparable to a 1-year bank CD paying ~3.50%. Right now, the Treasury bond safely wins if held inside a taxable account.
New issue available? For example, if today was 7/15/2022 and I wanted to buy a new 52-week T-Bill from TreasuryDirect or Fidelity, I would look at the official auction schedule see that the next available date for a 52-week T-Bill is on Thursday 8/4/2022 to place an order, 8/9/2022 auction date, and 8/11/2022 settlement date. I have no idea what interest rates will be like then, and for my purposes I wanted to lock in now.
Buying secondary Treasuries on Fidelity. To buy bonds on Fidelity, you must log into your brokerage account and navigate to the “Fixed Income” section, where they will show a quick overview of current rates across roughly 75,000 fixed income investments from brokered CDs to high-yield corporate bonds. (See image at top of post. Click to enlarge.)
Next, click on the “Bonds” tab > US Treasury bonds > Secondary market. This narrows it down to about 578 bond CUSIPs. This search and trade was completed 7/15/2022.
Since I want a Treasury bond with only one year left until maturity, I set the filter for a maturity date between July 2023 and July 2023. That should narrow it down to only 5 bond CUSIPS. Let’s take a look at them (click to enlarge):
These are all “used” bonds that have already been issued and been paying someone else interest at their own rate. The market will adjust the price of these secondary bonds so that everything with a similar maturity ends up paying relatively close to a current “market” rate. Most of these started out paying really low interest rates, so right now you’ll often be buying them at a discount to their face value. (When interest rates go up, prices for existing bond go down since their interest payouts are lower.)
If you hold two bonds with the same “yield to maturity” all the way until it matures and pays you back the principal, you should end up with the same amount of gain at the end even if it is split differently between interest income and capital gain. (If you buy at a discount and have years left until maturity, a pro-rated portion of the discount is reported as income every year until maturity.)
Note that these price quotes are separated into “bid” and “ask”. Bid is what folks are offering to pay, and ask is the price at which folks are offering to sell. There is a spread between them because if there wasn’t, they would have matched up and sold. For example, someone might offer to sell at an effective 3.09% yield, with another offering to buy at 3.14% effective yield.
I’m a small fry, so I just pay attention to the “Ask” and the minimum quantity. Sometimes the offered price looks good but requires you to buy $500,000 of it! (1 bond = $1,000 face value.) Also, the prices are like stocks and fluctuate constantly, so don’t anchor yourself to any specific number. I might wish I could get that 3.20% I saw the day before, but that rate may or may not come back during my buying window.
When you’re ready, you can place a limit order. This lets you set a maximum price you’ll be willing to pay (and thus minimum yield). For example, I chose this Treasury bond that began life as a 5-year bond on 7/31/2018 and matures on 7/31/2023 with an annual coupon of 2.75%. I offered a price of 99.652 each, which guarantees me a minimum effective yield of 3.09% (exempt from state and local taxes). I recommend always using a limit order, just in case.
A note on commissions. Fidelity does not charge a commission (or mark-up) on secondary US Treasury bond purchases if performed online. There is still the indirect cost of the bid/ask spread, but that is more of a concern if I was to sell. I believe that Fidelity has close enough to the best order fill available to an individual investor. I haven’t compared them in detail, but be aware that others may charge a mark-up.
My order was successfully filled at $99.652, which means for 10 bonds with $10,000 face value, I paid $9,965.20 for the bonds plus a little more for any accrued interest. US Treasury bonds are not callable and the interest is paid semi-annually. My next interest payments (at the old bond’s lower 2.75% rate) will be on 7/31/2022, 1/31/2023 and 7/31/2023 with the full return of $10,000 face value at maturity. Again, based on my local/state tax situation, my after-tax interest will be comparable to a 1-year bank CD paying 3.50% APY. This compares well to the best available rates on cash right now.