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Beth Pinsker: $22 billion in I-bond sales can’t be wrong. Why you may want to buy them even when their rate resets soon

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I-bonds’ sky-high interest rate is poised to fall to 6.48% when they reset next month, according to industry experts. Still, that would be the third-highest level since they were sold in 1998.

Though the Treasury Department will make an announcement on Nov. 1, the rate can be surmised based on the latest consumer price index (CPI) numbers released Thursday. Inflation is still running hot but not at the peak seen earlier in the year. 

The current 9.62% rate is available for purchase through Oct. 28, according to TreasuryDirect.gov, the only place you can buy the U.S. savings bonds. That would mean you’d get 8%, annualized, for the one-year lock-in that I-bonds require. 

Individuals may buy as much as $10,000 worth of I-bonds in a calendar year. Given that sales volumes have been enormous in 2022 — more than $22 billion in 2022 through Sept. 30, according to Treasury data — there may be plenty of people who have already met this cap for the year and have to wait until January to buy more.

For those who buy new securities starting in November, they’ll get the 6.48% rate, then it will readjust to the May rate, whatever that is when it’s announced. 

Given that the CPI shows that inflation is still strong, but trending slightly lower, you can expect I-bonds will follow suit. That means they’re likely still to be the best deal for high-yield fixed-income options then, too. But it depends what happens with the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, and short-term Treasurys
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and CDs along with them. 

“Since I-bond rates change every six months based on inflation, you can’t make apples-to-apples comparisons with CDs or Treasurys over a multiyear period. If inflation remains elevated, CD and Treasury rates will rise and may become comparable to I-bond rates,” says Ken Tumin, founder of DepositAccounts.com.

Will the deal get any better with a fixed rate? 

I-bonds are composed of two parts: a fixed rate that stays with the bond through redemption and an inflation-adjusted variable rate that resets every May and November. The fixed rate has been 0% since 2020, but some see the possibility that the Treasury could raise it in November. That means for new purchases, you’d get the 6.48% rate plus the additional flat rate, making it an even better deal. 

“The five-year TIPS, which is a comparable investment, has a real yield that’s going to be close to 2% at the end of the day. It doesn’t make sense for the I-bond to remain at zero, when TIPS are higher,” says Dave Enna, founder of TipsWatch.com, a website that tracks inflation-protected securities. 

Enna thinks the I-bonds fixed-rate should be between 0.3% and 0.5%, but the Treasury is not transparent about how it calculates this rate, so it’s not clear if and when it will happen. 

“If the Treasury decides based on I-bond demand — which is at record levels — they may decide to leave it at zero,” says Tumin. 

When should you sell? 

While I-bond demand has skyrocketed, Treasury data shows redemptions have stayed flat. Newcomers who bought when rates first jumped to an annualized 7.12% in November 2021 are just coming up on their first I-bond off-ramp, but they should consider waiting a bit longer. If you sell before five years, you lose the last three months of interest, which would be at a higher rate of 9.62%, and there’s really no equivalent to that right now. 

Enna says most people buy and hold I-bonds for the long term, using them as they were intended, as inflation protection. Some are even loading up on them as a gifting strategy. You can buy I-bonds for others, as long as you have their Social Security number. To deliver them, they need an account of their own and can’t have hit the $10,000 cap. But you can delay delivery, and all the while the I-bond earns interest at the current rate. Federal income taxes are deferred until redemption. 

For seniors feeling crunched by inflation and needing to protect their capital, holding a part of their nest egg for now in I-bonds, along with the increase in the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, could be helpful. 

“Although the index used for the determination of the I-bond rate and the Social Security COLA is slightly different — CPI-U vs CPI-W — the results are close to the same,” says Devin Carroll, a certified financial planner based in Texarkana, Texas, who runs the website SocialSecurityIntelligence.com.

He says seniors can benefit from I-bonds for the fixed-income portion of their portfolio, but they should be aware that they need a bit more care than the typical “set it and forget it” approach to using bond funds. “If inflation comes down, it’ll be important to ensure the rate is still competitive compared to other fixed income,” he says.

If you’re looking to sell eventually, Enna suggests you wait for three months following the next rate reset that dips I-bonds below similar investments like short-terms Treasury bills or CDs. That way, you’ll get the most you can out of the high rates. 

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