New inflation numbers were just announced, which allows us to make an early estimate of May 2015 savings bond rates before their official semi-annual announcement. This also allows us the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2015 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.
New Inflation Rate
September 2014 CPI-U was 238.031. March 2015 CPI-U was 236.119, for a semi-annual decrease of 0.80%. Yikes! Deflation! Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately -1.60%. The new fixed rate won’t be announced until May 1st (speculation below). You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate, but there is minimum composite rate of 0%. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be different.
Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminder
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 though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.
Buying in April
If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.48% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 1.48 = 1.48%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th, 2014 and sell on April 1, 2015, you’ll earn a ~0.81% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes.
This average rate is lower than what is currently available from the highest 1-year bank CD rates (ex. 1.23% APY at Synchrony Bank as of 4/17/15). Given the eventual 6 months of 0% that you will be facing, I may put my cash in a competitive savings account or CD until mid-October and November 2015 to see if inflation has picked up again by then.
Buying in May
If you wait until May, you are virtually guaranteed to gain a composite rate of 0% for the first 6 months. The next 6 months will be the sum of an unknown fixed rate plus an unknown rate based on future inflation. My best guess for the fixed rate is 0.0%, unless somehow the Treasury suddenly feels pity for us individual savers (doubtful). Given that the only guaranteed thing you’ll get is 6 months of zero interest, I would rather buy in April than May, but otherwise I’d still check back in during mid-October 2015 to see if inflation has picked up.
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%). Unless you bought your I Bond before November 2002, you will not be earning any interest for at least 6 months. For now, I think I will still hold my existing I Bonds and see what happens at the next update. I still value their unique advantages like ongoing tax deferral, exemption from state income taxes, and being a hedge against inflation (and even a bit of a hedge against deflation).
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. 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.