Update 11/1/17. The fixed rate will be 0.1% for I bonds issued from November 1, 2017 through April 30, 2018. The variable inflation-indexed rate for this 6-month period will be 2.48% (as was predicted). The total rate on any specific bond is the sum of the fixed and variable rates. See you again in mid-April 2018 for the next early prediction.
Original post 10/15/17:
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 a replacement for cash reserves (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 2017 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on the 1st. This also allows the opportunity to know exactly what a October 2017 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.
New Inflation Rate Component
March 2017 CPI-U was 243.801. September 2017 CPI-U was 246.819, for a semi-annual increase of 1.24%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be 2.48%. 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.
Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminders
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 2017
If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.96% for the next 6 months, for a total 0.00 + 1.96 = 1.96%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.00 + 2.48 = 2.48%.
Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on October 31st, 2017 and sell on October 1, 2018, you’ll earn a ~1.76% 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 ~1.91% annualized return for a 14-month holding period (assuming my math is correct). Compare with the current best bank interest rates.
Buying in November 2017
If you buy in November, you will get 2.48% plus an unknown fixed rate for the first 6 months. The fixed rate is likely to be zero or 0.1%. (Current real yield of 5-year TIPS is ~0.20%.) Every six months, your rate will adjust to the fixed rate plus a variable rate based on inflation. If inflation picks up, you’ll get a hiked rate earlier than versus buying in October.
If haven’t bought your limit for 2017 yet, I don’t feel strongly one way or the other. If you like the idea of locking in a rate of return for the next 12 months that is a bit better than current CD rates, buy in October. If you think inflation will go up soon, buy in November. Your November fixed rate might be also be bumped up a tiny bit to 0.1%.
Existing I-Bonds and Unique Features
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 + variable rate (minimum floor of 0%). Due to their annual purchase limits, you should still consider their unique advantages before redeeming them. These include ongoing tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and being a hedge against inflation (and even a bit of a hedge against deflation).
Over the years, I have accumulated a portfolio of I-Bonds with fixed rates varying from 0% to over 1%, and I consider it part of my 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 (see 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]