U.S. savings bonds have been one of the most popular investments since their introduction in 1935 by Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the then-Secretary of the Treasury. Designed to give small investors a way to earn a return on their money while enjoying the absolute guarantee of the U.S., savings bonds also provided the Bureau of Public Debt another financing vehicle to pay for the day-to-day operations of the government.
This win-win arrangement was the foundation for the success of the savings bond program and explains why, even today, they remain popular gifts and investments.
What Made Savings Bonds Unique
The U.S. always has issued debt, going as far back as the Revolutionary War. These bonds, however, were marketable. This means that those who originally loaned the money to the government in exchange for a bond that paid interest could later sell that bond to another investor without the government being involved in the transaction. If interest rates were higher, the investor would have to sell the bond at a discount to make up for the fact that it was earning less money than newly available bonds. (This is one of the basics of investing in bonds; when interest rates increase, bond values fall and vice versa.) The longer the bond maturity (that is, when the bond was due to be paid back in full and interest payments cease), the greater the bond's "duration". The greater the duration, the more violently the bond price responded to changes in interest rates.
For small investors, this was not an ideal situation. A farmer or a teacher would want a place to park their capital until they needed it to pay for education expenses, build a barn, or provide a gift for children upon marriage. Fluctuating bond prices presented a unique challenge. Certainly, the capitalist class could afford to take such risk, but those of ordinary means didn't like watching the value of their bonds change.
When Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., developed the U.S. savings bond program, he wanted to each savings bond to be non-marketable. That meant that investors could not sell savings bonds to other investors. Instead, the savings bonds represented a contract between the original purchaser and the U.S. government. This contract could not be transferred. In exchange, the savings bonds would never fluctuate in value. Investors would be able to cash in their savings bonds and receive their original invested principal, plus any interest owed. Combined with the promise that lost savings bonds could be reissued or replaced, the program became instantly popular.
Baby Bonds: The Nation's First Savings Bonds
The U.S. issued its first savings bonds in four successive series - Series A savings bonds, Series B savings bonds, Series C savings bonds, and Series D savings bonds - all of which were created and sold from 1935 to 1941. These "baby bonds", as the first savings bonds were called, were sold to investors in denominations ranging from $25 to $1,000, for approximately 75% of face value with the full 100% of face value received upon maturity ten years later. This resulted in a 2.9% compound annual rate of return for owners of savings bonds. The bonds ceased earning interest income altogether in April 1951.
These Series A through D savings bonds were sold through post offices, not banks like modern day savings bonds, as well as direct mail marketing and some magazine advertisements. These first savings bonds were so successful that they raised $4 billion. Adjusted for inflation, this is more than $60 billion today. This proved once and for all that the idea of offering affordable, market protected savings bonds for small investors was a viable way to serve the public interest, while simultaneously funding the government.
The End of the Baby Bonds
In the midst of World War II, facing a huge rise in the national debt, the Treasury Department realized it needed to create a much larger financing mechanism and decided to the expand the scope of the savings bond program. The Series A through D savings bonds were brought to an end and the Series E savings bonds were introduced, with volunteers ranging from Hollywood stars, newspapers, bankers, community leaders, and other media working to actively encourage American citizens to invest in the savings bonds to help pay for the war. Executives from America's largest corporations worked hard to have employees enroll in the savings bonds payroll program, which would allow them to save a set percentage of their paycheck and have the money invested automatically in the new Series E savings bonds.
The Rise of the Series E Savings Bonds
According to the US Treasury, the new Series E savings bonds were originally known as the "Defense Bond" in 1941, the "War Bond" from 1942 to 1945, and later, just a regular savings bond. Within a few years of its introduction, the new savings bonds became the most widely held and popular investment in the history of the world. Tens of millions of American households used their money to invest in the Series E savings bonds.
The first series E savings bonds were issued with 10-year maturities but were later extended to 30 or 40 years depending upon the issue date. The last Series E bonds are scheduled to stop earning interest in 2010. In 1980, the Series E savings bonds were discontinued and replaced with the Series EE savings bonds, which are still issued today.
Other Series of Savings Bonds Issued
Throughout the nation's history, additional savings bonds have been issued. The Series F savings bonds and Series G savings bonds were released between 1941 and 1952. The Series J and Series K savings bonds came out between 1941 and 1957. Savings Notes, also known as Freedom Shares, were released from May 1967 to October 190. The Series H savings bonds, which allowed Series E savings bondholders to roll over their bonds, were issued between June 1952 and December 1979. The Series H savings bonds were replaced with the Series HH savings bonds in January 1980 and continued until August 2004, when they were discontinued. The Series I savings bonds were introduced in 1998 and continue to be issued today.