Investment broker Freetrade* has launched an intriguing new place to stash your cash: UK treasury bills.

Forget boring old bank accounts and say “meh!” to money market funds.

After the bond fails of 2022, maybe UK treasury bills can offer a safe refuge for your dough while offering a tasty yield?

How does Freetrade’s UK treasury bill service work?

Freetrade is offering investors the facility to purchase 28-day maturity Treasury bills. 

Treasury bills are short-term government debt obligations issued by the UK’s Debt Management Office. 

They count as low-risk securities because they’re backed by the UK Government. As long as the government can repay its loans, then your capital will be returned when your treasury bills mature – plus a little extra for your trouble in the shape of the yield. 

You don’t have to worry about capital losses either. That’s because Freetrade won’t let you sell your bills before maturity. 

Which means Freetrade’s Treasury bill service effectively acts like a savings account with a 28-day fixed-rate. 

But as always, the devil is in the detail. Let’s go find him. 

Buying Treasury bills

The Freetrade UK Treasury bills service operates as a separate account alongside your usual ISA, SIPP, and trading account choices. 

This means your Treasury bill holdings aren’t shielded from tax. (See the tax section below for more.)

You can buy fresh Treasury bills every week when Freetrade participates in the DMO’s Friday auctions. 

The minimum order amount is £50.

You’ll discover if your order is fulfilled and the exact yield you’ll earn the following week. Both those outcomes depend on how the DMO auction pans out. 

As each block of bills you own matures, your capital will be returned along with the yield earned as a cash cherry on top. 

Your money will then be automatically reinvested at the next auction date. 

You can switch off the auto-reinvest setting (or change the amount invested) if you don’t want to lock-up all your loot for another month – though this has implications for your yield. 

Treasury bill yields

The amount you earn on each tranche of Treasury bills depends on the yield they achieved at auction. 

That yield is ultimately a function of the Bank of England interest rate plus market supply and demand for ultra-short UK government debt. 

The DMO publishes treasury bill yields achieved. This can give you a feel for how competitive rates are. 

In practice, yields for one-month bills closely track the prevailing Bank Rate. You can also see that the yields shift as market participants anticipate the Bank of England’s interest rate decisions.  

Yields are quoted as annualised yields. That is, they represent the return you’d make if you held the bill for one-year and compounded the proceeds at the same yield. 

This yield figure can be compared against the Annual Equivalent Rate (AER) offered by a bank account. 

However, your Treasury bills mature after 28 days, not a year. So £1,000 of bills earning a 5% yield won’t earn £50 upon redemption.

Instead, after 28 days, you’ll earn:

£1,000 x 0.051 x 28 / 365 = £3.84

Thus your £1,000 pays out £3.84 after 28 days earning a 5% yield. 

Are Treasury bill yields better than easy-access savings rates? 

The one-month Treasury bill yield beat the best easy-access savings accounts at times throughout the last year. But at other times it fell behind, or there was nothing in it. 

When assessing Treasury bills versus savings accounts, the main negatives are:

Treasury bills bought via Freetrade lock-up your cash for a month at a time. 

Bills can’t be tax-sheltered in Freetrade’s ISAs or SIPPs

Freetrade is set to charge fees from April that’ll knock from 0.1% to 0.45% off your yield. 

Despite these drawbacks, there is still good reason to consider Treasury bills.

Being a rate tart is a drag. Life is too short to spend on keeping up with best-buy tables, and the micro-frictions of account switching. 

Instead you can be satisfied you’ll probably earn a competitive short-term yield with Treasury bills due to the weekly auction process. 

And so you could settle. Keeping some of your spare cash in bills and auto-reinvesting so it’s always working reasonably hard. 

Are Treasury bill yields better than money market fund rates? 

A quick eyeball of current yields for money market funds suggests there’s little to choose between them and one-month Treasury bills. 

The 12 January Treasury bill tender bagged an average yield of 5.18%. That stacks up against one-day yields of 5.17% to 5.33% for our sample of sterling money market funds. 

In both cases, you’ll need to deduct platform fees – and Freetrade’s percentage fee could be costly if you intend to hold large sums in bills. 

You’d also need to deduct the money market fund’s Ongoing Charge and any trading costs. 

On balance I’d expect a money market fund’s yield to share the ongoing ‘best buy’ competitiveness of Treasury bill payouts. So that’s a wash. 

Rather, the upside of Treasury bills versus money market funds is that bills are less risky and more transparent.

We have previously explained the risks with money market funds. For one they typically hold more corporate debt than you might think given their ‘cash-like’ reputation.  

Meanwhile, the main upside of money market funds is they’re easy access and they can be stashed in your tax shelters. 

UK Treasury bill taxation

UK Treasury bill profits are taxable as income

Your yield isn’t paid as interest though. 

Treasury bills are classified as ‘deeply discounted securities’ (DDS) for the purpose of taxation. 

That is, you buy them at a discount to their face value. For example, you may buy £100 worth of bills for £99.60. 

You’ll then receive the full £100 face value when the bills mature. The profit you make from the price uplift represents your yield – around 5% in this case. 

Beyond that information on Treasury bill taxation is scanty. The DMO says:

Although Treasury bills have the same credit risk as gilts – they are sterling denominated unconditional obligations of the UK government – they are not classified as gilts for taxation purposes. Because of this they are covered by the taxation rules which apply to deeply discounted securities. In essence, these specify that if an instrument is issued at a discount of more than 0.5% of its redemption price, (multiplied by the period of a year represented by the maturity of the instrument) they are captured by the deep discount taxation regime. So any profit made by an individual as a result of buying this bill would be charged to income tax as income when realised (i.e. when the bill redeems or is sold on).

HMRC’s tax manual for deeply discounted securities awaits you here. Abandon all hope! 

Bill shock

I can find very little out there on the basics – such as whether Treasury bill income can be protected by individual allowances such as the personal savings allowance.

An HMRC admin claims the personal savings allowance does apply. But I’ve seen erroneous advice posted by HMRC operatives on its forums before, so I wouldn’t consider that absolute proof. 

Besides, it emerges in another HMRC tax manual that DDS discounts are not treated as interest:

For the purposes of ITTOIA05 all discounts, other than discounts in deeply discounted securities, are treated as interest for tax purposes, ITTOIA05/S381. 

If I’m interpreting that clause correctly then it doesn’t bode well for Treasury bill holders who want to invoke their personal savings allowance or starting rate for savings. 

And I as mentioned, Freetrade doesn’t provide the facility to tuck your treasury bills into an ISA or SIPP. 

Overall, the tax treatment of Treasury bills looks hazy and the rules on deeply discounted securities complex and opaque. 

This isn’t a product widely traded by the general public. No wonder consumer-friendly guidance on the tax position is thin on the ground. 

Freetrade could do its customers a service by stepping into the vacuum and pressing HMRC for some comprehensible and definitive answers.  

Risk protection 

Treasury bills are backed by the UK Government. You can assume a default is highly unlikely. 

Intriguingly, the Bank of England’s page on Treasury bills says:

In law it is neither a bill of exchange nor a promissory note, because, being a charge on a particular fund-the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom – it is not an unconditional order, or promise, to pay. But the condition of payment implied in the wording of a Treasury Bill, which is only that the Consolidated Fund should be able to meet the payment at maturity, is probably no great deterrent to holders. 

The Consolidated Fund is the Government’s bank account at the Bank of England. (I assume they get breakdown insurance with that.)

This being the UK rather than the US, our system tends to work based on convention and because it always has, rather than because there’s a solemn guarantee tattooed on the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant or written on parchment somewhere…

Are Treasury bills more bombproof than a bank account? It’s easy to assume that the government must sit above a commercial bank in the hierarchy of the national interest. That the QE printing press would always whir to meet short-term debt obligations. 

But governments do default. The UK has defaulted in the past. Our credit rating has been downgraded since the Great Recession, though we’re no basket-case obviously. 

Meanwhile, too-big-to-fail banks were nationalised last time the system buckled in 2008.

And the systemic importance of ensuring people don’t starve probably means that regular old cash is well-protected by the State, up to a point. 

Overall I’m doubtful that opting for Treasury bills amounts to a meaningful advance in risk reduction compared to cash – so long as you stay under the FSCS £85,000 bank deposit limit with the latter. 

The weakest link

On that tip, the FSCS £85,000 investor protection limit applies to Freetrade

If the platform went insolvent, and there was a problem recovering the full balance of your account, then you’d be eligible for £85,000 worth of compensation

This is the main risk to consider when you think about how safe your cash is in UK Treasury bills held with Freetrade

Freetrade UK Treasury bills vs other cash park options

Alright, it’s time to sum up the attractions of Treasury bills versus other cash options:

Easy access
Fixed term
Fee (%)
Default risk

Treasury bills
28 days
0.1 – 0.45**
Government, broker

Bank account

Money market funds
0.1 + platform and trading fee
Fund provider, broker

Premium bonds

** Fee charged from April. Freetrade’s Standard and Plus customers pay 0.1% per annum and Basic customers pay 0.45%. Freetrade don’t charge trading fees.

Whether Treasury bills leap off this table as your latest must-have asset or not, Freetrade is still to be congratulated for offering retail investors a potentially useful defensive option.

There’s no good reason why the UK public shouldn’t be able to invest in Treasury bills.

And bills fulfil the brief of a decent cash proxy: low-risk, low-volatility, and with little chance of leaving your money to rot on an uncompetitive interest rate. 

But there are issues too – mainly the corrosive impact of fees and taxes. 

Right now Treasury bills are a niche product, but if Freetrade can solve the lack of tax shelter access (especially for SIPPs) then there’s a role for the asset as a money market alternative for the bond shy.   

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

*Freetrade links at the time of posting are affiliate links. Such referrals may earn us a small commission if you choose to sign-up. This hard capitalistic reality hasn’t affected anything we’ve written here though.

i.e. 5%

The post Freetrade UK Treasury bills: what’s on offer, is it any good? appeared first on Monevator.

Receive the latest news in your email
Table of content
Related articles