(In this post, I’m not going to provide all the background information on savings bonds that I normally do. For that, please read the older posts in my Savings Bonds category.)
When the Treasury announced the $10,000 purchase limit for 2012, a few readers asked if you should buy savings bonds in January, or wait until later in the year. Since then, a few things have happened. For one, the Federal Reserve has basically said that they will keep their target fed funds rates at zero until late 2014, while setting a target inflation rate at 2% annually. Translation: Interest rates on savings accounts and similar products will be remain crap while the things we buy get more expensive.
Also, we have another month’s worth of Consumer Price Index (CPI) data which is how the inflation rate is defined for savings bonds. The next 6-month variable rate update will be based on the CPI-U change between September 2011 and March 2012. We are halfway there:
Sep 2011 226.889
Oct 2011 226.421
Nov 2011 226.230
Dec 2011 225.672
Jan 2012 ?
Feb 2012 ?
Mar 2012 ?
You can see that inflation is actually negative over these three months. However, user MoneyOCD of Bogleheads posted this informational chart showing that in recent years there have been many periods of negative inflation from September to December, only to be followed by periods of higher inflation from December to March.
Basically, making predictions now is premature. If you buy in January through April, you will get a fixed rate of 0%, and a variable rate of 3.06% for six months. Given the interest rate environment, this is pretty much one of the best options for “safe” money. If you wait all the way until May, you’ll get something new based on whatever happens to inflation the next few months along with a fixed rate that will most likely be zero again. The inflation rate resets every 6 months based on your purchase month.
In general, if you have the money and are looking to put it in shorter-term, low risk investments that are guaranteed not to lose money (in terms of face value), I would be maxing out my limit on savings bonds for 2012. Keep in mind that savings bonds can’t be cashed in for an entire year after purchase. My personal opinion on the short-term? I don’t see any benefit in waiting until May. If you have money to put aside now, buy Series I savings bonds now. If you don’t, just wait until you do. The rate is already higher than savings accounts or 1-year CDs, and by waiting around in a 0.75% savings account or 1-year CD you’ll be missing out in interest.
If you’re looking to buy in January, I’d put in your order today at TreasuryDirect. It’s better to buy near the end of the month, as you get credit for the entire month no matter if you buy at the beginning or the end.