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The U.S. government will probably come to its senses and raise the debt ceiling rather than choose voluntarily to default on its debt and potentially spark a worldwide financial disaster. But regardless of what you think about the collective intelligence of the U.S. Congress, you might not want to take the risk of investing in Treasury securities right now.
Big risk, no return
The argument against owning Treasuries is really quite simple: the potential reward really isn't worth the danger of having them in your portfolio. On the reward side, you can't get a 3% return from a Treasury bond -- before taxes and inflation -- without tying up your money for 30 years. Short-term Treasury bills yield a whopping 0.01%. That's right: a single dollar every year in interest on a $10,000 investment.
So why is anyone buying Treasuries right now? Treasuries still have the perception of being low-risk. After the stock market tanked and lost more than half its value between late 2007 and early 2009, it's hard to blame shell-shocked investors for thinking that preservation of capital is worth almost any price. But Treasuries do have risk, including the potential for devaluating their purchasing power through inflation, capital losses from rising interest rates, and, of course, that default bogeyman hanging over everyone's heads right now.
If you want to bail on Treasuries, what should you buy instead? Here are several good alternatives to consider:
1. Foreign bonds
The U.S. is far from the only country having trouble with its debt. But if you want the relative security of government bonds without putting all your eggs in the U.S. basket, foreign bond funds can spread out your risk.
You can find many funds that specialize in foreign bonds. Two closed-end funds, Templeton Global Income (NYSE: GIM ) and Templeton Emerging Markets Income (NYSE: TEI ) , own substantial portfolios of various government bonds. In addition, the SPDR DB International Government Inflation-Protected Bond ETF (NYSE: WIP ) specializes in owning bonds similar to U.S. TIPS, whose principal value moves with inflation.
2. Junk bonds
High-yield bonds are controversial. On one hand, their rates are a lot higher than Treasuries. But junk issuers like Petrohawk Energy (NYSE: HK ) run much higher risks of defaulting on their bonds than the U.S. Treasury. The question is whether you get enough in return to justify the risk.
The right mix of bonds may be just the ticket. SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond (NYSE: JNK ) yielded more than 8% as of June 30, with bonds of companies like CIT Group and AIG among its top holdings. At least with a bond ETF, one default won't torpedo your entire portfolio.
3. Dividend-paying stocks
Even further out on the risk spectrum are stocks. But with many companies enjoying top credit ratings, including Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) , investors get paid very little for their debt. By contrast, their dividend yields are higher than the interest rates they pay on many of their bonds.
Dividend stocks aren't without risk. But they give you something bonds don't: growth potential. If you think the odds are better that megacaps like J&J and Microsoft will hold their own or grow than that they'll shrink and fade away, then their stocks may well make a much better investment -- especially over the long run.
4. Bank money market accounts
Anyone who takes 0.01% on their money is wasting their time. Although 1% may not sound like much more, you can get that rate from a number of banks -- and with FDIC insurance, they're backed by just as much government faith and credit as Treasuries.
Face it: you need some liquid cash to get by. That doesn't mean it shouldn't work hard for you. Low rates have hurt savers, but you can still make the best of a bad situation.
You should own all these anyway
The debt ceiling crisis may have piqued your interest in Treasury alternatives, but you can feel comfortable having a mix of all four of these types of investments in your portfolio at all times. By keeping your holdings truly diversified, you'll put yourself in the best position to handle whatever happens.
I didn't mention one popular way to protect against Treasuries: buying gold. But interest in gold has never been higher, and a special free report from the Fool has uncovered one tiny gold stock that's digging up massive profits. See it by clicking here.
Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance. You can follow him on Twitter here.