A Guide to U.S. Treasury Ladders

By Laurel Tincher · May 18, 2024 · 10 minute read

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A Guide to U.S. Treasury Ladders

Purchasing U.S. Treasury securities are often considered to be a dependable and less-risky way to increase income and grow wealth over time. Building a Treasury ladder can be a smart move for investors looking for a way to maximize profits while controlling interest rate risk. Investing in a Treasury ladder allows investors to spread out the risk and return associated with holding fixed-income securities by buying a sequence of securities with varying maturities.

In this article we delve into the complexities of U.S. Treasury ladders, going over their advantages, construction techniques, and things to think about for investors trying to assemble a reliable and well-rounded portfolio.

Key Points

•   Treasury ladders involve purchasing U.S. Treasury securities with staggered maturities to manage income and interest rate risks.

•   This strategy allows for spreading out investment risks and returns across different maturity dates.

•   Treasury ladders can be constructed using Treasury Bills, Notes, and Bonds, depending on investment goals and time horizons.

•   The approach helps maintain liquidity and provides a steady income stream by ensuring parts of the investment mature regularly.

•   Treasury ladders are considered a conservative investment strategy, suitable for investors seeking stability and lower risk.

What Is a Treasury Bill Ladder?

An investing strategy known as a “Treasury Bill ladder” involves buying a sequence of Treasury Bills with varying maturities. The United States government issues Treasury Bills, sometimes known as T-bills, which are short-term debt securities with maturities varying from a few days to a year. Investors can spread out the maturity dates of their investments by building a Treasury Bill ladder, which preserves liquidity and generates a consistent income stream.

With this approach, investors can benefit from fluctuating interest rates and make sure that a part of their portfolio is always maturing, giving them flexibility in terms of withdrawal or reinvestment. Treasury Bills are also regarded as some of the least-risky investment options.

What Is a Treasury Bond Ladder?

A Treasury Bond ladder is similar to a Treasury Bill ladder in that it emphasizes longer-term investing and both involve staggering maturities. The United States government issues Treasury Bonds, which are long-term debt instruments with maturities ranging from 10 to 30 years.

A Treasury Bond ladder works similarly to a Treasury Bill ladder in that it distributes the risk and returns of investing in fixed-income securities by buying bonds with different maturities. Still, there are some significant distinctions between the two approaches. Because they are investments with a longer maturity period than Treasury Bills, Treasury Bonds usually provide greater yields.

Treasury Bond ladders are often favored by investors seeking higher income potential and are willing to accept the associated interest rate risk. Changes in interest rates may have an effect on the market value of Treasury Bonds. Notwithstanding these differences, Treasury Bill and Treasury Bond ladders are equally useful instruments for addressing the varied inclinations and goals of investors while controlling interest rate risk, producing income, and preserving portfolio diversification.

How Can You Build a Treasury Ladder?

Several important factors must be taken into account while building a Treasury ladder in order to minimize risk and maximize returns.

The first stage is to decide on the ladder’s ideal configuration, which includes the number of rungs and the assets’ staggered maturities. The term “rungs” refers to the individual assets that make up the ladder; based on the investor’s investment horizon and preferences, these securities may include Treasury Bonds, Treasury Notes, or Treasury Bills. By ensuring that a part of the portfolio matures on a regular basis, staggered maturities offer liquidity and flexibility for withdrawal or reinvestment.

To maximize the performance of a Treasury ladder, investors should also take the yield curve and current interest rates into account. Longer-dated securities often provide greater yields in order to offset the duration and interest rate risk. Nonetheless, investors may decide to add assets with shorter maturities to increase liquidity or to capitalize on future changes in interest rates.

When choosing the Treasury securities to include in the ladder, investors should consider their time horizon, investing goals, and risk tolerance. While Treasury Notes and Bonds offer higher returns and are appropriate for longer-term investment objectives, Treasury Bills are best suited for investors with short-term liquidity needs or a conservative risk profile.

After the ladder is put in place, investors should keep a close eye on it, rebalance the portfolio as needed to preserve the intended asset allocation, and modify the ladder’s maturity structure in response to shifting market conditions.

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What’s an Example of a T-Bill Ladder?

Buying T-Bills with varying maturities over a predetermined time frame, like a year, is an example of a T-Bill ladder.

An investor could, for example, build a three-rung T-Bill ladder, where each rung represents a T-Bill with a different maturity date. T-Bills that mature in three months, six months, and nine months, respectively, might be found on the first rung, second rung, and third rung.

By reinvesting the proceeds from each maturing T-Bill into new ones with longer maturities, the investor can preserve the ladder’s structure and create a steady flow of income. By delaying the maturity dates of their investments, this technique helps investors spread out their exposure to reinvestment risk while capturing changing interest rates over time.

An investor would receive interest income of $50 from the first T-Bill after three months, $100 from the second T-Bill after six months, and $150 from the third T-Bill after nine months, for instance, if they initially purchase $10,000 worth of T-Bills with staggered maturities of three, six, and nine months, and each T-Bill offers an annualized yield of 2%.

In order to preserve the ladder’s structure and gradually produce a consistent income stream, the investor may reinvest the principal and interest into further T-Bills upon maturity.

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How Do You Buy Treasury Bonds and Bills?

Purchasing Treasury Bills and Bonds is a simple process that may be carried out via a number of methods.

One popular way is via a brokerage account, where investors can buy Treasury securities through a broker-dealer. Or investors can buy directly from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Treasury securities are easily accessible through a number of online brokerage platforms, enabling investors to buy and sell them with a few clicks.

Banks and other financial organizations that take part in Treasury auctions are another source for investors to purchase Treasury securities. Investors can place bids for the required quantity and yield at regular auctions held by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for Treasury securities, such as Treasury Bills, notes, and bonds.

Additionally, investors may purchase Treasury securities indirectly by investing in a diverse portfolio of Treasury securities through exchange-traded funds (ETFs) or mutual funds with a Treasury concentration. Investors can easily obtain exposure to Treasury securities through these products without having to buy individual bonds or bills.

Is it Worth it to Build a Treasury Ladder?

Creating a Treasury ladder may have certain advantages for investors:

•   Possible protection against inflation: Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) within the ladder may help safeguard against the erosive effects of inflation by adjusting the principal value in line with changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

•   Revenue and cash flow: Treasury securities offer a steady income stream in the form of interest payments, which can be especially attractive to retirees or those looking for consistent cash flow. In order to provide liquidity for reinvestment or other financial needs, staggered maturities create a steady stream of maturing securities.

•   Diversification: Treasury ladders distribute assets across several Treasury security types and maturities, providing diversification and lowering total portfolio risk.

•   Security and less risk: Because they pay principal and interest on time by the U.S. government, U.S. Treasury securities are among the least risky investments available.

Are There Risks Associated with Treasury Bill and Bond Ladders?

Bond and Treasury bill ladders are typically regarded as low-risk investment techniques, but investors should be aware of certain potential risks.

Interest rate risk is one of the main risks connected to Treasury securities. Treasury securities’ market value can change inversely with changes in interest rates. This implies that the market value of current Treasury securities may decrease if interest rates rise, possibly resulting in a loss if the investor sells before maturity. On the other hand, investors who retain Treasury securities until maturity may benefit if interest rates decline and the market value of the securities rises.

Reinvestment risk is another thing to think about. Investors must reinvest the revenues from maturing assets into new securities because Treasury ladders feature staggered maturities. Investors may end up investing at lower rates if interest rates have dropped since the first investment, which might affect the ladder’s overall yield. On the other hand, investors might be able to reinvest at higher rates if interest rates have increased, which would raise the ladder’s total yield.

Even though Treasury securities are among the least risky investments available since they are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, there is always a small but constant risk of default. The purchase power of the principal and interest payments of Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS) can be impacted by changes in inflation, so investors should be aware that TIPS involve an inflation risk.

Can You Set Up a Ladder Using ETFs?

ETFs that specialize in Treasury securities allow investors to indirectly build up a Treasury ladder. Treasury-focused ETFs offer investors exposure to a variety of Treasury Bills, notes, and bonds by holding a diversified portfolio of Treasury securities with different maturities.

Without having to buy individual assets, investors can obtain a comparable result to a Treasury ladder by investing in these ETFs.

When building a Treasury ladder, investors can benefit from a number of ETF features. They offer diversification over a wide array of Treasury securities, helping reduce credit risk as well as interest rate risk. Also, a wider range of investors can invest in ETFs since they usually have lower investment minimums than buying individual Treasury securities. ETFs also trade on stock exchanges, giving investors flexibility and liquidity to purchase and sell shares at any time during the trading day.

That’s not to say that ETFs don’t, generally, have some downsides, though. ETFs may experience tracking errors, for instance, and have associated trading costs. There may be other types of risk, too – just some things to keep in mind.

Treasury-focused ETFs frequently provide extra characteristics, such as improved yield strategies or inflation protection, to meet the unique requirements and preferences of investors. To make sure that ETFs match their investment goals and risk tolerance, investors should carefully consider the expense ratios and liquidity of the funds before making an investment.

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The Takeaway

Building a Treasury ladder may be a tool for investors looking for a way to maximize profits while controlling interest rate risk. And, as noted, investing in a Treasury ladder allows investors to spread out the risk and return associated with holding fixed-income securities.

Overall, the combination of potential inflation protection, minimized interest-rate risk, reliable income, diversification benefits, and lower relative risk make building a Treasury ladder a compelling investment strategy for many investors, particularly those with a conservative risk tolerance or seeking stable returns over time.

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Is laddering Treasury bills a good idea?

A T-Bill ladder distributes investments over a range of maturity dates, which helps investors diversify their holdings. It can aid in reducing interest rate risk.

Are Treasury ladders taxable?

Yes, you pay federal taxes on Treasury Bills at your marginal income tax rate, but state and local income taxes do not apply to them.

Is it better to buy a CD or a Treasury bill?

Depending on the length of term you desire, you can choose between Treasuries and a CD. Treasuries are a preferable option because rates are close enough for both one- to six-month and ten-year maturities. Right now, CDs are paying more for durations of one to five years, and the difference is significant enough to give them the advantage.

Photo credit: iStock/Yauhen Akulich

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