New inflation numbers were just announced, which allows us to make an early prediction of May 2016 savings bond rates a couple of weeks before the official announcement on May 1st. This also allows us the opportunity to know exactly what a April 2016 savings bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.
New Inflation Rate
September 2015 CPI-U was 237.945. March 2016 CPI-U was 238.132, for a semi-annual increase of 0.0786%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately 0.16%. 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 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 is guaranteed to be 0.1%. You will also be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.54% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0.1 + 1.54 = 1.64%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.1 + 0.16 = 0.26%. 1.64% for 6 months, then 0.26% for 6 months.
Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you theoretically buy on April 30th, 2016 and sell on April 1, 2017, you’ll earn a ~0.97% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. This average rate is somewhat lower than what is currently available from the highest 1-year bank CD rates (ex. 1.25% APY at Synchrony Bank as of 4/15/16), but matches the APY of most online savings accounts.
Buying in May
If you wait until May, right now I can only estimate a fixed rate of between 0% and 0.2% plus the variable rate of 0.16% for a composite rate of 0.16 to 0.36% 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. Given this low rate for the first 6 months, I would rather buy in April than May, otherwise I would wait and check back in during mid-October 2016 to see if inflation has picked up.
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%). Again, this new rate update is low, but 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).
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.