New inflation numbers are out for September 2011, so it’s time for the usual semi-annual update.
New Inflation Rate. March 2011 CPI-U was 223.467. September 2011 CPI-U was 226.889, for a semi-annual increase of 1.53%. (CPI-U increased 3.9% over last 12 months.) Using the official formula, the variable interest rate for the next 6 months will be approximately 3.06%, depending on the upcoming fixed rate announcement.
Purchase and Redemption Timing Tips. You can’t redeem savings bonds until after 12 months, 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. 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 October. If you buy before the end of October, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.0%. You will be guaranteed an variable interest rate of 4.60% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0 + 4.60% = 4.60%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.0 + 3.06 = 3.06%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy at the end of October 2011 and sell at the beginning of October 2012, you’ll earn a 3.34% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, although you may want to hold it longer as new interest rates are announced. This is much better than any 1-year FDIC-insured bank CD available right now, keeping in mind the liquidity and purchase limits.
Buying in November. If you wait until November 1st, you will get a new unknown fixed rate + ~3.06% for the first 6 months, and an unknown rate based on ongoing inflation after that. Based on the current market rates of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), in my opinion it is very likely that the new fixed rate will remain zero. A lot of uncertainty with this route.
Existing I-Bonds? If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months (depending on your purchase month). Your monthly rate = your specific fixed rate + variable rate. Even at a low fixed rate, your existing savings bonds are paying much more than current savings accounts, so be very sure if you wish to redeem them.
Beware Low Purchase Limits. The annual purchase limit is $5,000 in paper I-bonds and $5,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number for 2011. 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
Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov. As for paper, here is a post on how to buy paper savings bonds from your local bank. Paper bonds will be ended in 2012, except through a small window by overpaying your taxes on purpose.
With the interest rate calculations above, we find that savings bonds still pay much more interest than equivalent bank CDs with the same low risk. Also, interest on savings bonds is not subject to state income taxes as well as other unique tax advantages. I’m buying up to our limits and keeping all of my existing bonds for the foreseeable future. For more background, please see the rest of my posts on savings bonds.