Why Bonds are Smart for Savings

Colorful Eggs in Small Colorful BucketsBonds are one of the easiest and most common ways to save money for the long term.  There’s a good chance you already own one.  If you have a certificate of deposit at your bank or your credit union, you own a kind of a bond.  CD’s are quite a bit different than other kinds of bonds, but they have many things in common.

Rather than going over different kinds of bonds, I’d like to explain why  they are a good investment for those of us saving for future needs.  In a previous article, I described two ways of looking at our investments.  Bonds are very useful for the part of our savings that we intend to preserve.

Bonds Eliminate Timing Risk

I mentioned back in my introduction to TIPS that bonds are actually a  type of loan.  CD’s are loans that you make to the bank.  If you ever wondered how to turn the tables on a bank and get them to pay you interest, that’s how.  If you have had a CD before, you know that it has an end date.  That’s how bonds work.  They “mature.”  When they do, you get your money back.

Because bonds have a due date, they are great for eliminating timing risk.  Bonds come with a promise to return your money on a specific day.  If you intend to go on a big vacation in two years, you can get a two year CD at the bank and earn higher interest than you would in a regular savings or checking account.  When the CD matures, you get your money back and all the interest right when you need it.

You can imagine what might happen if you put that money in a mutual fund for two years.  If you happen to have planned your vacation during the next stock market crash, you probably would have to change your plans.  It might be ok to miss your vacation, but putting off your retirement because you took that risk would probably be a bigger deal.

Certificates of Deposit and Inflation

Taking out a two year CD might not be that bad.  At the time I write this, CD rates are still quite a bit lower than the rate of inflation.  When that is true, you end up paying the bank to hold and protect your money.  That’s not always a bad idea.  Putting all that money in your house might be worse, but it sure would be nice to be able to keep up with inflation don’t you think?

I Bonds vs. CD’s

You might consider I Bonds for a two year holding time or more.  You can’t take your money out for the first year, so if you need the money sooner than that, it wouldn’t be a good idea.  If you need the money in less than five years, it would still be a pretty good idea to put your money in an I Bond because it protects your purchasing power at the cost of losing three months of interest.  It’s still better than most bank CDs at the time that I write this.  After five years of waiting, you can take the money out any time.  If you have more than 30 years to wait, you will have to sell your bond in thirty years and get a new one.  You can find out more about I Bonds in another article.

The advantage of using an I Bond over a CD is that you are more certain to keep up with inflation.  There are CD’s that allow you to “step up” your interest rate if the interest rates go up at some point.  The problem with that is that interest rates and inflation are not really linked.  The will of the government is in between.   Governments occasionally force interest rates lower as a way to “fix” the economy.  As a result, CD’s have proven to not be a very precise way to protect your money’s purchasing power.

Using a Bond Ladder

Ladder with fruitYou may have seen an article or heard someone at your bank talk about putting some money in a CD ladder.  This arrangement helps you take advantage of changes in interest rates over time.  It’s another way to attempt to deal with inflation issues as well.

The idea is that you split up your money, and buy CD’s or bonds with different maturity dates.  For instance you might buy one for six months, another for one year and another for two years.  The idea being that every six months you would have a CD coming due.  When it does, it allows you choose whether you need to use some of the money or put it back into another CD.  It also allows you to take advantage of changes in the interest rates as they go up.

When you are trying to save your money for later, bond ladders have much different purpose.  When you are using inflation protected bonds like I Bonds or TIPS you don’t really have to worry about the interest rates.  Remember that taking advantage of rising interest rates is the kind of thing we do with the part of our money set aside for opportunity investing.  When we are dealing with the preservation side, what we concern ourselves with is timing.  We just need to ask ourselves: When do I need this money?  In this case, we would use a ladder to put the right amount of money in the right place in the future to meet our needs.

Here’s an example.  Suppose you need your money in 15 years.  It may require that you take out a ten year TIPS, and after 10 years you need to remember to buy another 5 year TIPS when it matures.  You can think of your needs like buckets of money.  Let’s say that you have one bucket for each year during your retirement.  You need a ladder of bonds that reach to each bucket in order to fill them with the right amount of money so that you meet all of your needs.

Beware of Bond Mutual Funds

Bond mutual funds don’t have a maturity date.  Shorter duration funds may be safer than stock funds, but they are definitely more risky than just owning the bonds.  That’s because the fund share prices change every day based on market forces, not inflation.  I plan to explain that more in an article about mutual funds.

A Smart Way to Plan

Bonds are a great way to plan because they are based on time commitments.  Not everything in life can be planned, but for things that need to be, it really makes sense to use investments that have commitments built into them so that you can be sure to have money when you need it.


Copyright © Troy Taft 2020

10 Articles About Inflation Protected Bonds

Tree Under Umbrella

source: freeGraphicToday (Pixabay)

Here’s a list of 10 articles I found that provide information about Inflation Protected Bonds.  Learn more about how I Bonds and TIPS work and good reasons to use them for long-term savings.

Zvi Bodie: I Bonds Are Best for Most Investors

by ThinkAdvisor.com

This is an interview with Professor Zvi Bodie about the safest way to invest for your retirement needs.  He explains the clear benefits and why he believes that more people need to hear about this ultra-safe way to prepare for retirement.

What are I Bonds?

by www.ibonds.info

This overview of I Bonds briefly explains their benefits and how they compare to other investments in general.  It describes I Bonds as a safer investment than other kinds of investments.  It has some very helpful graphics.  I believe is the best site about I Bonds I have found.  You might want to spend some time here looking around at all it has to offer.  This site also sports an up-to-date display of the current interest rate being offered by I Bonds in the upper right hand corner and contains great quotes that people have made about the benefits of I Bonds.

Fixed income that isn’t fixed

by Fidelity Viewpoints, Fidelity Investments

This article provides a good overview of TIPS from an investment perspective.  It also has a discussion about ETFs that give smaller investors access to something called Floating Rate Loans.  I’m not a fan of those at this time, but this article does have a discussion of those as well.

Hedge Your Bets With Inflation-Linked Bonds

by Christina Granville, Investopedia

This article give some great background on the history of Inflation Linked Bonds and provides a brief overview of how they relate to investments in an investment strategy.  I tend to not care about investment strategies in that I use inflation protected bonds for long-term savings.  This article also provides the names the inflation protected bonds available in other countries.  Don’t get too concerned about the discussion about deflation.   She mentions at the end, it doesn’t apply to those of us using it for long-term savings.  I intend to address that issue in another article.

The Investment TIPS You Should Care About

by Wade Pfau on Forbes

This article is directed toward those of you who already think in investing terms.  It’s a bit technical compared to some of the other articles.  The author discusses some of the oddities regarding TIPS and their relationship to other bond investments.  He briefly discusses the idea of real and nominal yield and the difference in thinking that goes along with investing in TIPS.

TIPS: Understanding Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities

by Dan Caplinger on The Motley Fool

This is a great article that covers the history that the United States had with the bond market and inflation during the 1970s and 80s.  It does a great job of explaining the benefit and protection that TIPS provide.  The article concludes by recommending ETFs and Mutual Funds.  I’m not a huge fan of funds.  I hope to explain my viewpoint in a future article, but I have held them at times because I believe that they are some of the safest ones to hold.  This article is not very technical and a great one to read to get some background on TIPS.

Negative TIPS Yields

by Thomas Kenny at The Balance

One of the most alarming and confusing things to discover about investing in TIPS is that they can show a negative yield during certain times in the economy.  This article explains why that happens.  This is another topic I hope to make more clear in the future as well.  It’s good to note that your bank account has been giving you negative yields for several years in a row when you adjust your returns for inflation.  TIPS are just more easily exposed when this happens.  You can choose to not buy TIPS when they go negative.

Tracking Inflation and I Bonds

by TIPS Watch

This is a page on a site all about TIPS that tracks the interest rates of I Bonds.  It also explains how I Bond rates are calculated.  If you want to see the history of I Bond rates, you can see that on this tracking page.

Series I Savings Bonds

by Treasury Direct

This is the United States Treasury Department’s information on I Bonds.  You can get all of the most accurate and latest information here including the current interest rates and how they are calculated.   If you want to buy them, you are only a few clicks away.

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)

by Treasury Direct

Here is the United States Treasury Departments description of TIPS.  This is where you will find the most up-to-date information on them.  It’s not that hard to understand but you may need to invest a little time reading and thinking about it.  I don’t think you need to know much about investing to understand what it said here.  You can also buy TIPS directly from this site.


Copyright © Troy Taft 2020

Introducing Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS)

Bill in wood chestTreasury Inflation Protected Securities or TIPS, are one of the most valuable tools we have here in the U.S. to protect our savings from inflation.  In this article I provide a simple overview of what they are and how they work.

TIPS are really just a type of bond offered by the United States Treasury.  The United States Treasury has been offering bonds since 1935, but TIPS have only been offered since 1997.  The thing that makes TIPS bonds different from other bonds offered by the Treasury, is that these bonds are “indexed” to inflation.  Indexing a bond means that something about the bond varies with an index and an index is just a way of measuring something else.  TIPS bonds are indexed to an the CPI-U which is maintained by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.  That index is also called the Consumer Price Index.  It’s a measure of the cost of a broad range of things that we buy in the United States.  The CPI-U is a great topic for another post, but for now it’s enough to say that the CPI-U is a well established way to track inflation in the United States.

The United States Treasury sells these inflation protected bonds through their public web site: treasurydirect.gov.  That’s the same site you use to get I Bonds.  Here’s definition of TIPS at Treasury Direct:

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, provide protection against inflation. The principal of a TIPS increases with inflation and decreases with deflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. When a TIPS matures, you are paid the adjusted principal or original principal, whichever is greater.

TIPS pay interest twice a year, at a fixed rate. The rate is applied to the adjusted principal; so, like the principal, interest payments rise with inflation and fall with deflation.

See: Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) at Treasury Direct

If you are new to the whole idea of “bonds,” there is a simple way to think about them.  A bond is really just a loan that you provide to someone else.  When you “buy” a bond, you are acting like a bank.  You didn’t really buy anything.  You actually loaned that money.  Instead of paying interest to someone else, they pay interest to you!  In the case of TIPS, you are loaning your money to the United States Federal Government.  So you can think of a bond like a piece of paper that says that someone owes you money, even though we don’t use paper anymore.  It gets a bit weird when you consider selling that piece of paper to someone else.   For our purposes, I would only consider that in an emergency situation.

The nice thing about loaning money to the federal government is that they tend to pay you back.  The kind of bonds that may not pay you back have a special name that you may have heard before.  They are frequently called “junk bonds.” The U. S. government bonds are likely to be paid because the government has a lot of control over our money.  The down side to loaning to the federal government is that they tend to not pay a lot in interest, but when you are just trying to save your money, it’s more important to find a safe place than it is to make money.  There are many more risky ways to invest your money that allow you gain (or lose) in higher amounts.

So, lets talk about how TIPS protect us from inflation.  If you have borrowed money before, you may have recognized that the amount that you borrowed was called “the principal.”  With TIPS, the amount that we initially loan to the government is called the principal, but it is “adjusted” over time with inflation.

For instance, if I loan the government $1000 using a TIPS, and the inflation rate is 3% and a year goes by, your principal would be “adjusted” by the government to be $1030 because of the inflation.  If inflation kept going up at 3% for the next year, they would adjust the principal again to $1060.90.  You don’t have to do anything and your loan amount automatically goes up!

One thing that I need to explain before going on, is the concept of “bond maturity.”  Bonds are loans that have a limited amount of time associated to them.  When a bond matures, you get your money back and the loan is over.  Time for that bond is up and you have to be paid back.  TIPS currently come in three sizes: 5 year, 10 year and 30 year.  It’s good to keep that in mind because you wouldn’t want to get TIPS like this if you think you might need the money sooner than 5 years.  This has to be money you are storing away for the future.  The fact that the date is right on the bond, though, makes it great for storing your money for specific future things, like a big vacation, college for kids, or retirement.  The government has promised to pay you back on a specific day and that’s the day the bond matures.

“Ah,” you say, “but what about deflation?”  That’s an important question.  What goes up must also come down, and TIPS will go down too, but TIPS have a special feature built into them.  You can never get less than the “face value” of the bond back at maturity.  Face value is the term they use to express the amount of money that the bond represented when it was first issued.   That actual principle is still protected from deflation.  If we happened to go through a time of deflation and the bond comes due at that time, you are sure to get your original amount returned to you.  For instance, if you purchased a $1000 5-year TIPS and you had five strait years of deflation that left your adjusted principal  at $900, at maturity you would still get the full $1000 back.  You would have actually earned $100 in purchasing power because things are cheaper to buy.

There’s even more good news about TIPS.  The government does pay some interest to you for loaning them money.  At the time I write this, there hasn’t been a whole lot of interest being offered for quite a while.  The last 10 year TIPS had an interest rate of 1/2 of a percent.  That’s probably not anything to write home about, but it can add up over time.  1/2 of a percent of interest on a TIPS is a lot more than what it seems on the outside.  It’s like a little secret that stays a secret because it’s confusing to people, but here’s how it works.

According to the Treasury’s statement above, your interest is paid twice a year on your “adjusted principal.”  Remember, that’s the loan amount that has been adjusted for inflation.  Using the example above, if I took that adjusted principal of $1060.90 and calculated the interest payment for the year, it would be: 1060.90 x .005 = $5.30.  Now, if I didn’t have a TIPS but had a regular ole’ bond, the calculation would be this: 1000 x .005 = $5.00.  What this means is that my interest rate is also adjusted for inflation. The $5.30 of today buys the same amount of gas or hamburgers as the $5.00 did two years ago.  It’s true that 30 cents isn’t that big of a deal, but it adds up over time.  That’s the problem we are trying to deal with.

With TIPS, you get paid in “real” interest and that makes a big difference when you are trying to find a safe investment.  As you can see, you don’t get much interest, but what you do get will always have the same real value.  Now when the Treasury says you get paid twice a year, that means you have to take the $5.30 and divide it in half, because interest rates are a yearly rate.  You actually would get paid $2.65 half way through the year and another $2.65 at the end.  Of course by then, it may actually be higher because inflation doesn’t stop half way through the year.

Now I need to discuss the bad news.  It’s not so bad for those of us who are trying to protect our savings, but it isn’t something fun to think about, that’s for sure.   Perhaps you have heard of the IRS.  Well, they don’t seem to understand or care about the fact that we are simply trying to save money that we have already paid taxes on. One of the most disturbing things about the current state of personal finance came to my mind when I realized what was going on here.

The IRS doesn’t recognize those principal adjustments as “maintenance” on existing earnings.  They see them as “new earnings” and you know what that means.  Yes, that inflation adjustment gets taxed, and it gets worse.  They take the taxes out the same year it is “earned.”  That means that while you are just watching your $1000 turn into $1030, the government charges you taxes on that $30 that same year, even though your TIPS has not matured yet and you don’t have the earnings.  You are going to have to come  up with the taxes out of what you have now.  That’s when the interest comes in handy.  It can be used to pay some, or perhaps even all of your taxes, but you will have to pay taxes on those interest payments too.

If you are like me, you need to take a few seconds to calm the mind after the bad news about taxes.  There is a good thing about the tax situation to keep in mind, however.  The federal government doesn’t allow the state government to tax you on federal bond earnings.  This is the same for other federal bonds as well.

The second piece of bad news has to do with how TIPS are purchased.  It’s not like I Bonds where you just pay your money and get a bond for the amount you pay.  For TIPS, the government actually “sells” them on an auction.  Now this is hard for investing newbies (and it should be because it’s so weird in my opinion).  It’s like they are auctioning off money.  Yeah, that’s right.  They will sell $1000 for $998.70.  That’s on a good day at the auction.  When they do that they say that you are getting a “discount.”  On bad auction days, they could sell $1000 TIPS for $1020.  They call that buying at a “premium.”  I’m sorry I have to explain this but it is reality.  At some point I hope to go into the history of TIPS so you have a better understanding of why this happens.  It isn’t very common to buy 10 year or 30 year TIPS at a premium, but it has been very common for the 5 year TIPS recently.  This means that at certain times, you could lose all of your interest to the initial price of the TIPS.  There may be times that it is worth the risk to wait for a better auction.  I am discovering that for my critical savings, protection is well worth the cost.

So those are the two bad things.  Inflation protection comes at a cost at certain times in the economy.  Remember, though, that TIPS may turn into a good investment during certain times too, but I think it’s important for us to see it as a protection, and often when we protect ourselves, we have to buy something.  We spend money to protect things that are important to us.  I have learned that, even in the bad times, TIPS can be beneficial because the their protection outweighs the small amount I may have to pay extra during certain years.

Now here’s a very good thing I saved for the last.  You can put TIPS into a Roth IRA account.  Those are the retirement accounts that are tax free.  This is the sweet spot for TIPS.  When you store your  retirement money in a Roth account, you can put the money into TIPS and watch it grow along with inflation, without having to worry about taxes taking it away.   You will need to get a Roth IRA at a brokerage that offers TIPS in order to do this.

TIPS are a great way to protect your long-term savings from inflation because they are tied directly to inflation.  TIPS are not very fancy in that they come from the government, and they can be challenging to understand.  There are costs associated with TIPS such as federal tax and the possibility of high prices at auction.  I hope that this has provided you a good overview of what TIPS are and how they work.


Copyright © Troy Taft 2020