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The term junk, used figuratively referring to something of little value, has been used in different contexts in recent decades. According to Etymonline junk food is from 1971, junk art is from 1961, junk mail is first attested in 1954 and in financial context the term junk was apparently first used in 1979 with the expression junk bond.

Actually a Google Books search yields a much earlier usage, from West's Rhode Island Digest, 1952:

... it was one of very few firms specializing in “high yield debt" or "junk bonds," and that there were no similarly qualified in-state firms; committee could have hired suitable counsel in state market, and counsel's particular skills were not critical to...

Questions:

  • Were bonds actually the first financial intrument to be described as “junk”?

  • What are the earliest common usages of “junk” referring to financial instruments or institutions?

  • Innerestin. .... – Ricky Oct 5 '18 at 21:20
  • I'm sure "junk" has been used to describe investment quality for 200 years. It just didn't make it into formal publications until much later. – Hot Licks Oct 5 '18 at 21:55
  • The particular use of junk, as in junk bonds, was actually an ironic way of describing bonds that despite being high risk might be a good investment, and not just because they tended to pay a high interest yield. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-yield_debt – JeremyC Oct 5 '18 at 22:28
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    Without more context, I would guess that 1952 is the volume date for the digest, and the quote is actually from a later entry. That's a common issue with Google Books' dating in periodicals. Maybe someone with access to Westlaw's publications can confirm one way or the other. – 1006a Oct 5 '18 at 22:30
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    The Rhode Island Digest date of 1952 for an instnce of "junk bonds" is definitely incorrect, since the case of In re Swansea Consolidated Resources cited in the same snippet page view that contains the allusion to "junk bonds" was decided no earlier that 1991. Some Google Books matches date the case to 1993, but that may reflect a later appellate review. – Sven Yargs Oct 8 '18 at 6:27
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An Elephind newspaper database search turns up one very lonely instance of "junk bonds" from more than one hundred years ago, in the San Francisco [California] Call (October 24, 1911):

'JUNK BONDS' MAY BE WORTH $800,000

Mexico Will Be Asked to Redeem Old Documents Hauled Out of a Trunk

Believing that Mexican government bonds and securities, which 32 years ago were declared worthless, can be converted into cash to the amount of $800,000, David Craelius of Mill Valley yesterday applied for special letters of administration in the estate of Charles J. Janson, who died in this city in 1879.

Judge Coffey, before whom the application was brought, granted Craelius' petition and placed him under bonds in the nominal sum of $1,000.

When the will of Charles J. Janson was filed in 1879 the widow, Mrs. Therese Louise Janson was appointed executrix. The bonds and securities, which Janson had received during turbulent times in Mexico were among the personal effects left. Investigation indicated that they were without value. The estate was divided and the stocks and bonds thrown into a trunk and forgotten.

Recently Mrs. Janson mentioned that, she still had possession of the documents. Her son in law, Craelius, became interested, and after consultation with his attorney, Rufus C. Thayer, it was decided that he should endeavor to convert the bonds into cash.

In this extreme chronological outlier, "junk bonds" means "bonds tossed into a trunk after being deemed worthless." There seems to be no line of continuous usage between this instance and the instances of "junk bond" that begin to appear in the late 1970s in Elephind search results.

The earliest Elephind match for "junk bonds" in the modern sense of the term appears in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (September 30, 1977), in the form of a brief reference to a TV program called Wall Street Week that was devoting a show to junk bonds:

WALL STREET WEEK "A Junket Into Junk Bonds" Guest: Harry Freeman Jr., Assoc. Managing Partner, Lord, Abbett & Co.

The next mention comes about six months later, in Robert Murick, "Pick the Right Mutual Fund" in the [Palm Springs, California] Desert Sun (March 27, 1978):

"JUNK" Many investors find what is commonly called a junk bond fund to their liking. This type of fund goes in for bonds with low ratings coupled with higher than normal yields. A variation on this theme is the junk municipal bond fund. Here the individual can participate in state and local bonds with low ratings. Like other municipal bonds, they are free from the clutches of the lax collector.

Roughly the same age as these instances is one for "junk stock" in Donald Bauder, "Don't Play Around With Today's Stocks," again in the [Palm Springs, California] Desert Sun (January 22, 1978):

The fun stocks are beginning to look like funk stocks. A funk stock, of course, is not as unappealing as a junk stock in the current market but the similarities are remarkable. The fun stocks are, of course, the leisure-time stocks, including the makers of recreational durable goods (Brunswick, AMF, Outboard Marine, etc.).

From the admittedly narrow array of daily newspapers available for Elephind searches in the 1960s and later, it appears that "junk bond" in its modern sense was in use by late 1977 and that "junk stock" was in use by early 1978.

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