Inflation bond: the ultimate protection against the rising cost of living. If you know what you’re doing, you get a real yield of 1.9% on these U.S. Treasury securities. If you don’t, you’ll get a lousy deal, a bond paying 0%.Why on earth would people buy a 0% bond when the 1.9% alternative is right at hand? Because they follow the advice of naïve personal finance commentators.
The naïfs are in love with I bonds. These are savings bonds that track the cost of living. There are negatives: They have a purchase limit of $10,000 a year, they have restrictions on early redemption and they can’t be put in a brokerage account.Worst of all, I bonds have a 0% real yield. Your interest consists of a nothingburger return plus an inflation adjustment. In purchasing power, you break even.
Smart money is going into the other kind of inflation-adjusted Treasury bond, called a TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Security). TIPS have no purchase limit, no restriction on your ability to get out early, and no trouble going into your brokerage account.Best of all, TIPS have a positive real return. The ones due in five years pay 1.92% annually. In purchasing power, you gain 9.6% over the five years.
I can forgive the experts who were gushing about I bonds back in January. At the time, the five-year TIPS had a real yield of -1.6%. At 0% for the real yield, the I bond was clearly the better buy, apart from the inconveniences attached to getting and holding the thing.
Since then there has been a bond crash. Yields on marketable bonds have shot upward. The yield on I bonds hasn’t budged. There is no excuse for recommending an I-bond purchase today.
I bonds can be held for 30 years, after which they stop accruing interest. You can’t cash them in during the first year. In years two through four, a redemption comes with a penalty equal to three months of inflation adjustments. After the five-year mark you can cash in whenever you want, collecting your full 0% return (that is, full recompense for inflation).
Where to get those TIPS? You have two options. One is to own a bond. The other is to own a bond fund. There are pros and cons to each. or the bond, arrange with your bank or broker to submit, close to the deadline, a non-competitive tender at the next auction of five-year TIPS. The tentative Treasury schedule, to be finalized on Oct. 13, is for the auction to take place on Oct. 20.
At Fidelity Investments there is no fee for an auction order placed online; the maximum buy is $5 million. Other financial institutions have similar deals. TIPS yields could go up or down over the next two weeks. If they go up, hurray. If they go down a lot, you could choose not to participate.
If you hold that bond until it matures, you are certain to collect the return set at the auction. If you cash in early by selling in the secondary market, you could be looking at either a windfall capital gain or a windfall loss, depending on whether interest rates go down or go up. That’s a fair bet, but selling would mean getting nicked by a bond trader, who will pay slightly less than the bond is worth. I’d recommend a direct bond purchase only if there’s a pretty good chance you can stand pat for five years.
The alternative is to own shares of a TIPS bond fund. Two I like are the Schwab U.S. TIPS ETF (ticker: SCHP, expense ratio 0.04%) and the Vanguard Short-Term Inflation-Protected Securities ETF (VTIP, 0.04%). The Schwab fund has bonds averaging 7.4 years until maturity; the Vanguard portfolio’s average maturity is 2.6 years. A 50-50 blend of the two funds would give you the same interest-rate excitement as a single bond due in five years.
The advantage to the funds is that they are very liquid. The haircut from trading is typically a penny a share round-trip (that being the bid/ask spread), a tiny percentage of a $50 stock.
The disadvantage to the funds is that you can’t nail down what real return you’re going to get between now and October 2027. The funds keep rolling over proceeds from maturing bonds into new bonds. The portfolios never mature.
What that means: You could wind up doing better or worse with the funds than you would have with a single bond due in five years. It depends on what path interest rates take. Again, it’s a fair bet, but you may not like this kind of uncertainty.
I’ll now address two supposed benefits to I bonds: that you can’t lose money and that you can defer tax on the interest. Can’t lose? Only in the sense that an ostrich with its head in the sand can’t lose. Savings bonds are not marked to market. You can’t see your loss.
Buy a $10,000 I bond today, and you become instantly poorer. If you plan on staying put for five years, your investment should now be valued at $9,100. That’s all your future claim on the U.S. Treasury is worth, given where TIPS yields are. If you have the sense to get out at the earliest possible date (12 months from now), then the damage is less, but it’s still damage.
The other supposed advantage to I bonds is the deferral of income tax on the inflation adjustment. This is not the bonanza you may think it is. Our current tax law is set to expire at the end of 2025. After that, tax rates are going up.
I aim to help you save on taxes and money management costs. I graduated from Harvard in 1973, have been a journalist for 45 years, and was editor of Forbes magazine
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Both I bonds and TIPS adjust the interest they pay based on changes in inflation and are backed by the US Treasury, which means there is little risk of defaulting on those interest payments. But those similarities also come along with significant differences. The most important difference is that while you can buy up to $10 million worth of TIPS through Fidelity at auction, and an unlimited amount on the secondary market, I bond purchases are limited to $10,000 per person per year and are only available on the Treasury’s website, not through your brokerage account.
I bonds also require that you not touch the money you invest in them for a year and if you do so during the following 4 years you must forfeit the most recent 3 months of interest payments. These limits on both quantity and liquidity represent obstacles for both savers who want liquidity and for investors who want yield. While I bonds’ high interest rates may look appealing, a closer look at TIPS may reveal them to be more useful inflation fighting tools.
I bonds, TIPS, and taxes
Semi-annual interest payments on TIPS are subject to federal income tax, just like payments on conventional Treasury securities—or I bonds.
Any increase in the value of the TIPS principal is subject to federal tax in the year that it occurs—even though you won’t receive any income from the increase. On the other hand, when the TIPS matures or is sold, you will only pay federal tax on the final year’s increase in principal while receiving the full increase in principal since the date of initial purchase. Like all Treasury securities, TIPS and I bonds are exempt from state and local income taxes. Investors should consult their tax advisors regarding their specific situation prior to making any investment decisions with tax consequences.
While I bonds are only available at TreasuryDirect.gov, investors interested in diversifying their portfolios with TIPS can choose from individual bonds, mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds. The approach you choose should reflect your ability and interest in researching your investments, your willingness to track them on an ongoing basis, the amount of money you have to invest, and your tolerance for various types of risk. There are pros and cons for both individual bonds and bond funds. In some cases, it may make the most sense to own both. Learn more about the differences between individual bonds and funds here: Bonds vs. bond funds
TIPS are also used by professional investment managers to help protect portfolios from specific risks, says Lars Schuster, institutional portfolio manager with Strategic Advisers, LLC. “While higher inflation can be problematic for some bonds, TIPS exposure might help protect the value of the fixed income portion of a well-diversified portfolio,” he says.
You can buy TIPS directly from auctions held by the US government and at Fidelity.com. TIPS are available in 5-, 10- and 30-year maturities, at auctions spread throughout the year. You can also buy and sell individual TIPS with various maturities and prices from other investors in the secondary market. Fidelity.com does not charge fees or mark-ups on these transactions. You can learn more at Comparison of TIPS and Series I Savings Bonds
Fidelity also offers research tools including the Mutual Fund and ETF evaluators on Fidelity.com. Below are the results of some illustrative screens using the search terms “taxable bonds” and “fighting inflation” (these are not recommendations of Fidelity).
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