U.S. Savings Bonds Have Outperformed Stocks Since 1998?

Value of Equal Monthly Investments Graph

A reader recently told me that he was no longer investing in the stock market after seeing the chart below from the Savings Bond Advisor. It shows the total portfolio value after investing equal monthly amounts in either the S&P 500 stock market index or Series I US Savings Bonds. The time period is from September 1998 (when “I Bonds” started being sold) through August 1, 2011. My comments follow.

The past returns of savings bonds are indeed pretty good, but not likely to be repeated. Series I Savings Bonds (I Bonds) were the new thing in 1998, and the government offered some really enticing interest rates on them. I Bonds have a fixed component that lasts for the duration of that specific bond and an variable component that adjusts with inflation every 6 months. From 1998 to May 2001, the fixed component was always between 3% to 3.60% above inflation (source). However, since May 2008, the fixed rate has been between 0% and 0.7%. For the past year, the fixed rate has been a big fat zero. I would love to have a savings bond paying 3% plus inflation (currently 2.30%), as some current bondholders have, but I don’t expect that to ever happen again.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still a competitive investment, especially for the short term. Since interest rates are so low, I still buy savings bonds even at a 0% fixed rate as part of my emergency fund cash reserves.

Savings Bonds are being slowly killed by the government. Even though savings bonds have historically encouraged people of all income levels to save, it appears that the US Treasury is slowly killing the savings bond. As recently as 2008, you could buy $30,000 worth of each type of savings bonds a year, per person. For a while, we were able to even use credit cards to buy them without a fee. Today, you can only buy $5,000 of paper I-bonds and $5,000 of electronic I-bonds a year, and even paper savings bonds are being phased out in 2012. (You can still overpay your taxes and buy paper bonds with a tax refund in 2012.) There was even a NY Times article last week entitled Save the Savings Bond. Basically, even if you wanted to create your retirement portfolio with savings bonds, you can’t.

Investing solely in inflation-linked bonds is actually recommended by some financial authors. The thing is, the government has so much debt that it greatly prefers US Treasury bonds which can be sold by the billions. Printing a $50 savings bonds is not even a drop in the bucket, it’s closer to a H2O molecule in the bucket. What you can invest in is Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which like I Bonds are backed by the government and pay an interest rate linked to inflation. Economics professor Kolitkoff in the book Spend ‘Til The End recommends your entire portfolio to be TIPS. The problem? You’re gonna have to save a lot. TIPS yields are very low, currently offering yields of negative 0.7% above inflation (!) for a 5-year bond to a meager 1.1% above inflation for a 30-year bond. If you’re okay with saving 50% of your income every year for 30 years, then this plan might work for you.

There is no easy answer as to the best place to invest right now. I am sticking with a diversified low-cost portfolio with both stocks and bonds (including a nice chunk of TIPS inside, which has done quite well recently), and you can see with this chart that it has also done pretty well the last decade.

US Treasury Ends Paper Savings Bonds in 2012

According to a press release, the Treasury will no longer sell paper U.S. savings bonds through banks and other financial institutions as of January 1, 2012. You can still buy electronic savings bonds through TreasuryDirect.gov.

I didn’t see any news regarding the purchase limits changing. The annual purchase limit is currently $5,000 in paper bonds and $5,000 in online bonds per Social Security Number. However, with the disappearance of paper bonds this would seem to cut the overall limit in half starting in 2012. There does seem to be a small loophole in the press release:

Series I paper savings bonds remain available for purchase using part or all of one’s tax refund. For more information on this feature, visit www.irs.gov.

Does this mean I should intentionally overpay my taxes by $5,000 this year, so I can buy an extra $5k in savings bonds in 2012? If there is continued inflation and low interest rates, Series I bonds could continue to be a good deal. They currently offer 4.60% interest for 6 months, plus an yet-to-be determined amount for the next 6 months. Even if that later rate is zero, you could still earn over 2.5% annualized over the next 11 months. For more details, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

Reminder: Savings Bonds Monthly Purchase Deadline Tips

Here’s a reminder regarding an opportunity to buy savings bonds near the end of May and receive an annualized return of 2.51% over the next 11 months. This would be 1% more than the highest current CD rates, with potential for continued higher interest. See this previous post for more details. The main catch to this opportunity is that you will not be able to sell your savings bonds at all for the next 11 months.

The reason why you want to buy at the end of the month is that savings bonds are labeled by month, and as long you buy anytime in May, it will be stamped with a May 2011 date. Then, on the first day of May 2012, you can redeem for an entire year’s worth of interest. However, you don’t want to miss the deadline, because then your bond will end up an April 2011 bond. The annual purchase limit is currently $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year.

For electronic bond purchases, Ken of DepositAccounts conducted an experiment as to how late you can wait to buy them on TreasuryDirect. To summarize, in order to avoid this, you should enter your purchase order a minimum of two business days before the last day of the month. For peace of mind, I would pad it 4 business days. You can schedule your purchase ahead of time online (recommended).

For paper bond purchases, you can visit your local bank and ask to buy them. Here are detailed instructions. Not all banks do this, so check ahead of time. The issue date of the savings bond will be the same day that the bank accepts payment. This date will be noted clearly on the application, and the bank should also stamp it to confirm. In this case, if you are familiar with the bank and you have the money available, you could conceivable wait until the last day the bank is open before the end of the month. Again, I’d try a couple days beforehand to be safe.

Savings I-Bonds March 2011 CPI Update: 4.60% Variable Rate = Competitve Interest Rates

New inflation numbers for March 2011 were announced on April 15th, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update and rate predictions. This time around presents a good buying opportunity for a low-risk investment with interest rates higher than current bank CDs.

New Inflation Rate
September 2010 CPI-U was 218.439. March 2011 CPI-U was 223.467, for a semi-annual increase of 2.30%. Using the official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 4.60%, depending on the upcoming fixed rate announcement.

Purchase and Redemption Timing Tips
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur a interest penalty of the last 3 month 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 little 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 0.0%. You will be guaranteed an variable interest rate of 0.74% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 0.74 = 0.74%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.0 + 4.60 = 4.60%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th and sell on April 1, 2012, you’ll earn a 1.66% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. This is better than any 1-year bank CD that I can find right now, keeping in mind the liquidity concerns and the purchase limits.

Given that you lose the last 3 months of interest (again, for holding less than 5 years), it might be better to wait long enough to grab that 4.60% for the entire 6-month period. If you buy on April 30th and hold until July 1st, 2012, you’d achieve a annualized return of ~2.29% over 14 months.

Buying in May

If you wait until May, you will get a new unknown fixed rate plus 4.60% for the first 6 months. My guess for the fixed rate would be 0.0% again, given current real yields for TIPS. The next 6 months will be based on an unknown rate based on future inflation. Worst case scenario, there will be zero inflation and you get paid nothing. Even in that case, if you buy on May 31st, 2011 and sell on May 1st, 2012, you would end up with an annualized return of 2.51% over 11 months.

If you are looking simply for the highest interest rate for a short period, then it would likely be better to wait until May 31st to buy up your savings bonds this year. If CPI inflation is very low or negative for the next 6 months and you are holding for at least 14 months, then it may end up being slightly better to buy in April. In the end, there’s more potential upside for buying in May, so that’s what I plan to do.

Low Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov. As for paper, here is a post on how to buy paper savings bonds from your local bank. Some larger banks may have an electronic process.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds. I’m keeping all of mine for the foreseeable future, due to their tax deferral possibilities and other unique advantages.

Found an Old Paper EE Savings Bond

Here’s a blast from the past. I think I was reading an article about how savings bonds stop earning interest after 30 years, and so I asked my mom if she bought any bonds when I was born. I don’t know why, I figured that’s just what people did back then. It turned out she did, and the earliest bonds happen to stop earning interest next this month. She dug them out of storage, and sent me a scan of them:

She bought an EE savings bond with a face value of $100 for the purchase price of $50 in February of 1981. I was two years old. Using the savings bond calculator at TreasuryDirect, I found the current value to be $300.04. So over the last thirty years, the value went up 6x. This works out to an annualized return of about 6.1%.

According to TreasuryDirect.gov, for bonds issued before November 1982:

Bonds which have not reached final maturity are earning interest at either guaranteed or market-based rates; whichever produces the higher redemption value.

The guaranteed “original maturity period” was 9 years for this bond, which meant it was guaranteed to be worth the face value of $100 after 9 years. That works out to an 8.0% annual interest rate. If only we could get such a guaranteed return now, but the early 80s was a time of high inflation.

When the original maturity period ends, the bond enters a new 10-year maturity period where the government can reset the minimum rate. That’s why my bond is now earning only 4%. I can’t find the market rate for 1981, though. I could probably calculate it if I really wanted to, as it is defined as “85% of the average of 5-year Treasury marketable security yields”. The market rate in November 1982 was 13.05%!

If you have some old savings bonds, find them before they stop earning interest completely. In addition, the IRS supposedly requires you to report the interest as earned in the year of final maturity, even if you don’t redeem it. If you have a lost, stolen or destroyed savings bond, you will need to fill out Form PD F 1048. Also check out this Treausury Hunt page.

Savings I-Bonds November 2010 Fixed Rate: 0.0%

The new fixed rate for Series I Savings Bonds (“I Bonds”) was announced on 11/1/10 to be 0.0%, down from the previous fixed rate of 0.20%. Inflation protection is being held at a relative premium right now, so this isn’t all that surprising.

As predicted earlier, the new variable inflation-linked rate will be 0.74%. The total composite rate = fixed rate + variable inflation rate. Thus, any Series I savings bonds bought in November will have a total rate of 0 + 0.74 =0.74% for 6 months. If you already own I-Bonds, your fixed rate is always the same but the variable rate changes every six months from your purchase month, so it may not immediately change over this month.

Despite the relatively low fixed and variable rates, there are several unique advantages of savings I-bonds that can make them a potentially desirable investment. Combine this with their low annual purchase limits, and I am holding on to my bonds (and bought more last month in October).

For more related info, see the rest of my savings bonds posts.

Potential Unique Advantages of Savings I-Bonds

Even though the current interest rates on Series I Savings Bonds aren’t much higher than other alternatives, these I-Bonds do have some unique characteristics that can keep them attractive.

Inflation-Linked Returns

Along with TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities), these are the only investments you can make that are explicitly tied to a measure of U.S. inflation. (Some foreign-countries also have inflation-linked bonds.) Interest rates don’t always move perfectly with inflation, so having such protection can be helpful.

Exempt From State and Local Income Taxes

The interest from I-Bonds are exempt from state and/or local income taxes. Of course, this is only an advantage if you are subject to such taxes.

Tax Deferral

You can use to either report your interest earned on an annual basis (like a bank CD), or have the interest reporting deferred until maturity or redemption. This can be especially advantageous if you are in a relatively high tax bracket now, but sometime in the future you believe you will have at least one year where you will have lower taxable income (possibly on purpose) and thus can redeem at a lower tax rate (perhps even zero). I-Bonds keep earning interest for up to 30 years.

Educational Tax Exclusion

If you meet several requirements, you can even avoid federal income taxes completely when paying qualified higher education expenses at an eligible institution. More information at this TreasuryDirect page.

According to this FinAid.org page (via Bogleheads Wiki), you can even contribute your proceeds to a 529 plan or Coverdell Educational Savings Account.

Series EE and I US Savings Bonds issued after December 31, 1989 may be redeemed tax-free in order to contribute the proceeds to a section 529 plan or Coverdell Education Savings Account. (To take advantage of this, file IRS Form 8815 to claim an exclusion for the interest after rolling the proceeds of these US Savings Bonds into a section 529 college savings plan or Coverdell Education Savings account. Write “529 College Savings Plan” or “Coverdell Education Savings Account” in the answer to 1(b), where it asks for the name of the educational institution. The specific citation in the tax code for this guidance is IRC Section 135(c)((2)(C).)

One of the restrictions that concerns me is that there is an income phase-out. In 2010, full phase-out occurs at a modified adjusted gross income of $135,100 for married filing jointly filers and $85,000 for single filers.

Savings I-Bonds Update: September 2010 Inflation Data Announced

New inflation numbers are out for September 2010, so it’s time for another semi-annual update:

New Inflation Rate
March 2010 CPI-U was 217.631. September 2010 CPI-U was 218.439, for a semi-annual increase of 0.37%. (This was 1.1 increase over the last 12 months.) Using this official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 0.74%, depending on the fixed rate. Here’s the math:

218.439/217.631 = 1.00371, or a semi-annual increase of 0.37%. Using a fixed rate of the existing 0.2% announced in May 2010:

Variable rate = 2 x Semiannual inflation rate + (Semiannual inflation rate X Fixed rate)
Variable rate = 2 x 0.00371 + (0.00371 X 0.002)
Variable rate = 0.00743, or 0.74%

Buying Now? If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.20%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 0.20 + 1.54 = 1.74% for the next 6 months due to previous deflation, and 0.20 + 0.74 = 0.94% for the six months after that. The inflation component will continue to change every six months. You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur a 3-month interest penalty.

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. Let’s say we buy on October 31st. You’ll be able to sell on October 1st, 2010 for an actual holding period of 11 months. You have to be careful with transaction cut-off times, though, otherwise you may trip into the next month. (3-month interest penalty still applies.)

Buying Later? If you wait until November 1st, you will get a new unknown fixed rate + ~0.74% for the first 6 months, and an unknown rate based on ongoing inflation after that. Based on the tiny fixed real rates on the related Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) currently, my guess is that the new fixed rate is likely to remain very low, perhaps even zero.

Despite these yields not being especially attractive right now, I am thinking about buying some more I-Bonds for my emergency fund, and will probably split them between buying late in October and in November since to me there is not a clear choice to go with one over the other.

Existing I-Bonds? If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month to your original fixed rate + variable rate. I have some at 1.2% fixed rate, which will give me 1.94% for the next 6 months. Interest on savings bonds is not subject to state income taxes. Also, one of the benefits of I Bonds over TIPS is that the total rate (fixed + inflation) can ever go below zero, providing some protection from potential deflation.

Beware Low Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s a $20,000 total cap per year. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number (additional considerations apply).

Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov. As for paper, here is a post on how to buy paper savings bonds from your local bank. According to this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the Treasury has indicated that it plans to phase out paper bonds in the near future.

For more background, please see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

Savings I-Bonds March 2010 CPI Update: 1.54% Variable Rate

New inflation numbers for March 2010 were announced today, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update and rate predictions.

New Inflation Rate
September 2009 CPI-U was 215.969. March 2010 CPI-U was 217.631, for a semi-annual increase of 0.77%. Using the official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 1.54%, depending on the fixed rate. Here’s math:

217.631/215.969 = 1.00769, or a semi-annual increase of 0.77%. Using a fixed rate of the existing 0.3%:

Variable rate = 2 x Semiannual inflation rate + (Semiannual inflation rate X Fixed rate)
Variable rate = 2 x 0.0077 + (0.0077 X 0.003)
Variable rate = 0.0154, or 1.54%

Buying Now = ~2.33% APR, 11-month investment
If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.3%. You will be guaranteed an variable interest rate of 3.06% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 3.36%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.3 + 1.54 = 1.84%.

You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur a 3-month interest penalty. However, 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. Let’s say we buy at the end of this April, hold for the minimum of one year, and pay the 3-month interest penalty for redeeming within 5 years. You’ll be able to sell on April 1, 2011 for an actual holding period of 11 months.

Taking into account the 3-month penalty, that leaves you with a 2.33% annualized return, which is also exempt from state income taxes on the interest. This is slightly better than any 1-year bank CD that I can find right now, keeping in mind the liquidity concerns and the purchase limits (see below).

Buying Later? If you wait until May 1st, you will get a new unknown fixed rate plus 1.54% for the first 6 months. My wild guess for the fixed rate would be 0.4% at most, probably less. The next 6 months will be based on an unknown rate based on future inflation. If you really want inflation protection, these I-Bonds may be a viable alternative to TIPS, but I wouldn’t pick them for short-term funds due to the low guaranteed rate.

Low Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov. As for paper, here is a post on how to buy paper savings bonds from your local bank. Some larger banks may have an electronic process.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

Savings I-Bonds November 2009 Fixed Rate: 0.3%

The new fixed rate for Series I Savings Bonds (“I Bonds”) was announced on Monday to be 0.3%. This is a follow-up to the ~3.07% inflation rate previously calculated based on CPI-U data.

As a long-term investment, a 0.3% real yield makes I-Bonds a slightly worse choice than Inflation-Protected Treasury Bonds (TIPS). As of yesterday, a 5-year TIPS had a 0.73% real yield.

As a short-term investment, it depends on how you think inflation will turn out in the near future. If you buy a new I-Bond in November, you will earn 0.3% fixed + 3.06% based on inflation = 3.36% for the first 6 months. The second 6-month rate will be 0.3% + a variable rate based on inflation from September 2009 to March 2010.

(Savings Bond Reminders: You must hold for at least a year (or 11 months and a day if you buy on the last day of the month). If you hold for less than 5 years, there is a penalty of the last 3-months interest. Savings bond interest is exempt from state income taxes, and all taxes can be deferred until the time of bond redemption.)

Worst case scenario, there is deflation of worse than 0.3% which makes the total rate zero for the 2nd six months. Earning 3.36% for 6 months with an 11-month holding period gives you an effective rate of approximately 1.83% APY. This is only slightly lower than the top yields for a 12-month CD. If the annualized inflation rate over the 2nd 6 months is just 1%, your effective rate after the 3-month interest penalty rises to 2.00%. It’s not a screaming buy, but if you are looking for 1+ year safe investment and haven’t exceed your annual purchase limits, I would personally buy them over a bank CD since you do well in cases of rising inflation and okay otherwise.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.

US Savings Bonds: Increasing Annual Purchase Limits With A Minor Account

Got a reader question today about the purchase limits for savings bonds:

Can I get around the $20,000 annual buying limit by purchasing I-bonds in my child’s name?

After doing some research, it does appear that yes, you can exceed the usual purchase limits by buying more bonds in the names of your children. Currently, the annual purchase limit is now $5,000 in paper bonds and $5,000 in electronic bonds per series type (EE/I) and per Social Security Number. Thus, a couple could buy a total of $20,000 per year in I-Bonds.

From the TreasuryDirect Change in Annual Purchase Limit FAQ:

I’m buying bonds for myself and my children through my TreasuryDirect account. How does the limit apply to these purchases?

You can buy up to $5,000 each year of electronic Series EE and I bonds in TreasuryDirect on which you are the primary owner, plus up to the limit of each series in the name of each child for whom you’ve established a linked account in the child’s name as primary owner. Minor linked accounts are sub-accounts of your own master account, but do not provide you with ownership rights to securities held in the linked sub-accounts.

The next question is do you have the ability to buy and sell the bonds? From the TreasuryDirect Establish an Account for a Minor page:

A Minor account is a custodial account you may establish for a child under the age of 18 if you are a parent, natural guardian, or person providing chief support. You may purchase, redeem, receive gift deliveries, and perform other transactions within the account on behalf of the minor. When the minor reaches age 18 and establishes his or her own Primary account, you may de-link the securities from the Minor account to move them to the newly established account.

Other considerations
Since these bonds will be bought in the name of a minor, they are the one that will receive the interest income when redeemed. This might actually be a good tax move, as a child can earn a certain amount of income ($1,900 in 2009) before it is subject to tax at the parent’s higher rate. See this IRS page for more info.

When the child turns 18, it is then in their control and you can no longer perform most transactions like selling the bonds. In addition, there is also the education exclusion which can allow bond owners to avoid paying tax on the interest when used for qualified higher education expenses. If you’re thinking of doing this, remember that the bond has to be in the parent’s name, not the child’s name. More details here.

Savings I-Bonds Update: September 2009 CPU-I Data Announced

New inflation numbers are out, so it’s time for another semi-annual update:

New Inflation Rate
March 2009 CPI-U was 212.709. September 2009 CPI-U was 215.969, for a semi-annual increase of 1.53%. Using this official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 3.07% based on current fixed rates.

Buying Now? If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.10%. You will be guaranteed a total interest rate of 0% for the next 6 months due to previous deflation, and 0.10 + 3.07 = 3.17% for the six months after that. You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur a 3-month interest penalty.

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. Let’s say we buy on October 31st. You’ll be able to sell on October 1st, 2010 for an actual holding period of 11 months. (3-month interest penalty still applies.)

However, given the first 6 months of 0% and the 3-month penalty off the end, I think I’d wait until November 1st.

Buying Later? If you wait until November 1st, you will get a new unknown fixed rate + ~3.07% for the first 6 months, and an unknown rate based on ongoing inflation after that. It can’t go much lower than the current 0.10%, so I’d wait a couple weeks and see if you haven’t used up your buying limits this year.

Existing I-Bonds? If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month to your original fixed rate + variable rate. Even though you probably went through 6 months of 0% total interest, the next 6 months won’t be that bad as compared to current savings account rates of ~1.50% APY. I have some at 1.2% fixed rate, which will give me 4.28% for the next 6 months. Interest on savings bonds is not subject to state income taxes. I am keeping mine.

Beware Low Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s a $20,000 total cap per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov. As for paper, here is a post on how to buy paper savings bonds from your local bank.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.