I Bond investors are going to be getting back in the game on Nov. 2, after suffering through six months of 0.0% returns, which effectively cut off all I Bond sales from May to October 2015. Only a sucker would sign up for 0.0%.
Series I Savings Bonds pay a composite interest rate comprised of two interest rates – the permanent fixed rate (currently 0.0%) and the variable inflation rate (currently -1.60% annualized). On Nov. 2, the variable rate will rise to 1.54% because of a 0.77% rise in inflation from March to September. We won’t know the new fixed rate until the Treasury announcement – probably coming at 10 a.m. on Nov. 2. Tip: This page will update on the Treasury site, you can watch it on Monday.
I will be buying I Bonds next week even if the fixed rate remains at 0.0%. A 1.54% return is decent for a super-safe investment that will track inflation into the future. I Bonds can be sold after a year with a small (three-month) interest penalty, or after five years with no penalty. Income taxes are deferred. I Bonds are deflation proof, too.
Because the Treasury limits us to buying $10,000 per year per person, I think it’s smart to continue building a cache of I Bonds, pushing inflation-protected money into the future. If the fixed rate rises in the future, sell some of your I Bonds with 0.0% fixed rates to buy new ones, up to the limit.
But is there a chance the fixed rate will rise?
Yes, there is a chance. I think it is fairly slim, maybe a 30% chance the fixed rate will rise to 0.1% or even 0.2%. Remember, the Treasury sold practically zero I Bonds from May to October. If it wants to give buyers an incentive, it should raise the fixed rate as a token gesture. That is what it should do, but the Treasury doesn’t come to me for advice.
Back in November 2013, the Treasury shocked everyone by raising the fixed rate to 0.2%. That move came out of the blue. At the time, a 10-year TIPS was yielding 0.5%, meaning it had only a 30 basis point spread over an I Bond. That is the lowest spread in history for any I Bond with a fixed rate higher than 0.0%.
Then, six months later, in May 2014, the Treasury lowered the I Bond fixed rate to 0.1%, resulting in a 33 basis point spread with a 10-year TIPS. Since then, the fixed rate has been 0.0%.
Here is a chart showing the historical spread of the I Bond fixed rate and 10-year TIPS yield. At the top is our current situation, and the resulting spreads for fixed rates of 0.0% to 0.3%.
|Month||I Bond Fixed Rate||10-Year TIPS||Basis Point Difference|
|Oct 29 2015||0.0||0.63||63|
|Oct 29 2015||0.1||0.63||53|
|Oct 29 2015||0.2||0.63||43|
|Oct 29 2015||0.3||0.63||33|
The good news is that even at a fixed rate of 0.3%, the spread drops to only 33 basis points, which is in line with that November 2014 move by the Treasury. The bad news is that over the last 10 years, the Treasury has let the spread rise as high as 239 basis points. It also kept a fixed rate of 0.0% in May 2011, resulting in a spread of 75 basis points.
As a general rule, I think the Treasury would like to keep the I Bond spread 75 to 100 basis points below a 10-year TIPS. I Bonds have a lot of advantages over TIPS. Tax deferral is a big one, and they have a flexible term of 1 to 30 years.
But things have changed dramatically since the mid-2000s, and inflation fears have turned to deflation fears. The Treasury may want to give I Bonds a boost. I hope so.
Conclusion. Whether or not the fixed rate rises, I will be buying I Bonds next week, up the limit. If the fixed rate rises, I will also buy my 2016 allocation in January. If it stays at 0.0%, I will hold off purchasing them until later in 2016.