Savings I Bonds are a unique, low-risk investment backed by the US Treasury that pay out a variable interest rate linked to inflation. You could own them as an alternative to bank certificates of deposit (they are liquid after 12 months) or bonds in your portfolio.
New inflation numbers were just announced at BLS.gov, which allows us to make an early prediction of the November 2019 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to predict what an October 2019 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.
New inflation rate prediction. March 2019 CPI-U was 254.202. September 2019 CPI-U was 256.759, for a semi-annual increase of 1.01%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 2.02%. You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be very different than one from recent years.
Tips on purchase and redemption. You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time. If you miss the cutoff, your effective purchase date will be bumped into the next month.
Buying in October 2019. If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.50%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 1.90% for the next 6 months (0.50 + 1.40). For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.50 + 2.02 = 2.52%.
Let’s look at a worst-case scenario, where you hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on October 31st, 2019 and sell on October 1, 2020, you’ll earn a ~1.72% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. If you held for three months longer, you’d be looking at a ~1.89% annualized return for a 14-month holding period (assuming my math is correct). Compare with the best interest rates as of October 2019.
Buying in November 2019. If you buy in November 2019, you will get 2.02% plus a newly-set fixed rate for the first 6 months. The new fixed rate is unknown, but is loosely linked to the real yield of short-term TIPS. In the past 6 months, the 5-year TIPS yield has dropped to about 0.20% and has been close to zero. My best guess is that it will be 0.10%. Every six months, your rate will adjust to your fixed rate (set at purchase) plus a variable rate based on inflation.
If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate (set at purchase) + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%).
Buy now or wait? In the short-term, these I bond rates will probably not beat a top CD. If you intend to be a long-term holder, a factor to consider is that the October fixed rate is 0.5% and that it will likely drop at least a little in November in my opinion. You may want to lock in that higher fixed rate now.
Unique features. I have a separate post on reasons to own Series I Savings Bonds, including inflation protection, tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and educational tax benefits.
Over the years, I have accumulated a nice pile of I-Bonds and now consider it part of the inflation-linked bond allocation inside my long-term investment portfolio.
Annual purchase limits. The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. You can also buy an additional $5,000 in paper bonds using your tax refund with IRS Form 8888. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.
For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.
[Image: 1946 Savings Bond poster from US Treasury – source]