New inflation numbers for March 2012 were announced on April 13th, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update and rate predictions.
New Inflation Rate
September 2011 CPI-U was 226.889. March 2012 CPI-U was 229.392, for a semi-annual increase of 1.1032%. Using the official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 2.21%, depending on the upcoming fixed rate announcement (although really it’s highly unlikely to be anything but zero).
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 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 0.0%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 3.06% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 3.06 = 3.06%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.0 + 2.21 = 2.21%. 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, 2013, you’ll earn a 2.27% 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 the combination of current low rates and the fact 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 12 full months of interest by holding for 15 months (14 buying late). If you buy on April 30th and hold until July 1st, 2013, you’d achieve a annualized return of ~2.26% over 14 months. After that, you can see what the new rates are and decide whether to keep holding them.
Buying in May
If you wait until May, you will get a new unknown fixed rate plus 2.21% for the first 6 months. I would bet my own money that that the fixed rate will be 0.0% again (any takers?), given current real yields for TIPS. The next 6 months will be based on an unknown rate based on future inflation. If there is high inflation for the next 6-month period, this may get you a higher rate sooner, but buying in April will eventually get you the same rate anyway.
My personal opinion is that you might as well lock on the guaranteed above-market rates for 12 months by buying in April instead of buying in May. You could always wait all the way until in October for the next rate announcement, but if you have the cash now you’ll have the opportunity cost of lower rates until then.
Low 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.
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. Compare the rates on these savings bonds to what you’re earning on your FDIC-insured bank deposits, and you may start hoarding them like me.