# Inflation Protection and Taxes

It’s important to understand that inflation protection is removed when taxes are applied.  Current tax rules disregard inflation, and as a result it’s easy to demonstrate that inflation can cause all of our interest on a TIPS and some of our principle to be lost through taxation alone.

When we consider our inflation adjusted returns, we can easily see that the real tax rate climbs to astronomical levels.  This simple example shows how easy it is for taxes to use up all of our real returns.

## A Revealing Example

Let’s consider the effects of taxes on our inflation adjusted gains.  These adjusted gains are what finance professionals call our “real” gains.

Let’s use the actual TIPS that is being offered as I write this and our current inflation rate.  Our current inflation rate is actually 2.2% but we will use 2% make it easier and more conservative.  If you buy a \$1000, Ten year TIPS with a 0.5% interest rate and experience inflation that averages about 2% during that time, the overall real gain would be 5% over 10 years and the overall inflation adjustment if it stayed the same during that period would be 20%.

After 10 years, your principle would be adjusted to \$1,200 and you would have been paid about \$60 in interest.  The problem is that you are not taxed on the just the \$60.  The tax rules require that you be taxed on the \$60 real gain + the \$200 of principle adjustment.  If you are paying taxes at a low 15% rate, the rules say that you must pay 15% of \$260 or \$39.  Since you really only earned \$60 in real value, you will have paid 65% in taxes.

That’s a very high tax rate for sure, but look what would happen if we had an unusual amount of inflation.  This is something we need to consider because our intention is to protect ourselves from both average and unusual changes in inflation.

Let’s change the average inflation to 5%.  After 10 years, your adjusted principle would now be \$1500 and your 0.5% interest would be \$75.  Your tax on \$575 at 15% would now be \$86.25.  Since you only really earned \$75, taxes will have taken all of your real gain and forced you to take a loss of \$11.25 on top of that.  That comes out to be a real interest rate of -0.1125% and a real tax rate of 115%.

In a taxable account, the greater the inflation, the less the protection.  I can’t honestly say that it provides any protection at all because a taxable account amplifies inflation.  It is wrong to assume that our savings is inflation protected just because we hold a TIPS.

## One Safe Place

If you open a tax advantaged account such as a 401k or an IRA at a brokerage that allows you to hold TIPS within it, your savings is guaranteed to be protected.  That’s because all growth in a tax advantaged account is either not taxable or tax deferred.  This means that all inflation adjustments to your TIPS principle will only be taxed once, either before you put it into a Roth IRA or 401k or after you take it out of a traditional IRA or 401k.

The combination of a tax advantaged account and TIPS is currently the only option that I am aware of that will guarantee inflation protection to a person attempting to save money in United States.

## I Bonds are Only Guaranteed in Certain Cases

I Bonds are tax advantaged in that they are exempt from state and local taxes.  That makes them an even better option than other “safe” investments.  This still does not protect them from a total loss of real gains through federal taxation on inflationary gains.  There is one more advantage though.  If an I Bond is used for tuition, it is tax free and becomes a great way to save for a child’s education.

It is also possible to sell your I bonds at a time in which your taxable income is below your exemption allowance.  If your total income falls below the your permitted exemption, then your I Bonds are tax free for that year.

## A Problem for All Investments

It’s very important for all investors to understand that this problem exists outside of TIPS and I Bonds.  As far as I know, all investments have the potential of losing all of their real gains through taxes that are amplified by inflation.  Here’s an explanation of the effects on capital gains:

It’s not just a problem for investors, though.   Inflationary gains are taxed in your very own bank account.  Your interest may be only \$1 per year, and you may have actually lost \$5 of purchasing power in your account.  You would think that would mean that you lost \$4 in purchasing power.  Since you pay taxes on your inflationary gain of \$1, it pushes the loss even lower than \$4.  Inflation amplifies your taxation because the more inflation there is, the more tax you pay.

If you have the ability to have 401k, I highly suggest that you do that.  IRAs only allow you to contribute \$6,000 per year for those under the age of 50 and \$7,000 per year for those over 50.  401k’s allow you to hold far more depending on your income.

If you are a high-income individual.  You currently have no guaranteed protection from inflation for savings that I know of.  It may be a good idea to consider moving your investments overseas.  There are several nations that don’t have capital gains taxes including Mexico and New Zealand.

# How Inflation Protected Mutual Funds Fail to Protect (Part One)

Inflation protected bonds are a great way to protect your long-term savings and it’s easy assume that inflation protected mutual funds or ETFs are just as good, but that’s actually not the case.   There’s increased risk to savers who hold bonds in a mutual fund.  In this two part series, I explain some of the risks and why I don’t recommend using funds for this purpose.

#### The Benefits of Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are pretty convenient to an investor.  They are relatively easy to buy and sell and are managed by professionals.  They allow us to leave our investments in highly qualified hands.

Mutual funds are also very well advertised.  You can find out a lot about them because they are in almost everyone’s 401k. Mutual funds can be a win-win situation for the novice investor and the experienced money manager.  The problem with mutual funds and ETF’s is that they are inherently more risky than bonds because they have added exposure to market forces.

#### Preservation vs. Opportunity Investments

When we are saving, we intend to preserve our money for a specific point in time.  Mutual funds help us take advantage of investment opportunities, but they don’t commit to pay at a point in time.  We are able to pick a good management team and pay them to pick the best time to buy and sell stocks and bonds, but they don’t promise that our money will be there when we need it.

As I mentioned in the article: “Stressed about Savings? Divide and Conquer!”  it’s very helpful to divide your money into two separate parts before you start.  Mutual funds can be a valuable part of the opportunity side of your investing, but too risky for the preservation side.

#### The Safety of Bonds

Bonds have traditionally been a much better place to store money for long term savings.  That’s because bonds are loans with a due date.  When a bond matures, you get all your money back.  I discuss this at length in the article: “Why Bonds are Smart for Savings

The danger bonds have is the possibility that your money won’t be paid back to you at all.  We do have to consider who we are loaning our money to.  Risky bonds are not good investments for savings either.  You can diversify them, but they are still not good preservation tools because you may not get all your money back when you need it.  Good quality bonds, however, can be seen as a good method of saving for the long term as long as they are adjusted for inflation. That’s because you have a reasonable commitment that you will be paid on time.  Mutual funds, on the other hand, don’t come with a commitment to pay anything.

#### Bond Funds

As safe as bonds are, you would think that putting bonds into a mutual fund or an ETF would produce the best of both worlds, but that’s not the case.  A surprisingly risky set of things happen when you put bonds into a fund.

When you invest in a bond fund, you are not owed anything anymore!  When you own a bond directly, the bond issuers legally owe you money on a specific date.  In a mutual fund, the bond issuers owe the fund money, but they don’t owe you anything directly.  This is very important to understand.  If you intend to insure your savings, then it’s better to choose a method of savings that provides you a direct guarantee.

You might be wondering why a bond fund would not be able to pass along the bond issuer’s guarantee.  There are some valid reasons.

#### Funds are Mutual, Bonds are Not

It’s important to understand that a bond fund is owned by a group of people.  This creates a problem for savers.  In order for a bond to preserve your money, you must hold that bond until it matures.  There is no money available until a bond matures, unless you are willing to sell the bond at the current market rate.  Funds, on the other hand, allow shareholders the ability to buy and sell at any time.  If all of the other shareholders had the same intentions as you, it might work well to use a bond mutual fund, but that isn’t the case at all.  There are some shareholders that may actually sell their shares before the bonds in the fund mature.  If enough people do that at the same time, it could force the managers to sell some of the bonds at a rate that is lower than what was paid for them.  As you patiently hold your shares, the value in the fund would go down because of what others decide to do.

#### Bond Market Exposure

What this tells us is that by putting a bond into a fund, it exposes the fund to the bond market which can be as unreliable as the stock market.  If the bonds are always held to maturity, they have no exposure to the bond market and there is nothing to worry about.  I have found that bond funds usually follow bond market prices, not bond maturity values.

Let’s consider some of the risks the bond market exposes an investor to.  Remember that the bond market is just a place to buy and sell loans that haven’t been paid back yet.  The market is subject to what buyers and sellers perceive about the future.  Since these loans are dependent on an interest rate,  investors are exposed to the potential that the bond’s interest rate will seem small in the future compared to newer bonds and other investments that become available.  Since investors want to hold loans with the largest payout, the loans with the lower interest rates would lose market value.  They could even lose enough value that they temporarily fall below the original principal.  If a fund manager is forced to sell at that point to pay a mutual fund shareholder, it deeply hurts the fund.  Since you own a share of that fund, it hurts you too.  When you buy a bond directly, you can hold the bond and ignore the market.

# The Effects of Inflation

Meditations (Pixabay)

Whether intended or not, one of the bad effects of a government-regulated monetary system, is that it creates a disconnect between money and the real things we need to buy.  Take food for instance. If we were use hamburger gift certificates instead of the money we use today, we would know that we would get the same amount of food for our money today as we would after leaving the certificates in a box for 10 years.  Somehow, we’ve managed to mess up our monetary system such that it is significantly more difficult to depend on it for real needs… like eating or clothing ourselves.

Let’s consider the effects of inflation using terms that we can actually eat.  Let’s assume that you had put a 10 hamburger certificate under your mattress in the year 2000, only let’s also assume that someone has allowed inflation to eat your hamburgers without your permission over time.  How many hamburgers do you think you would be able to buy today with an inflation adjusted 10 hamburger certificate?  By 2017, your 10 hamburger certificate would only buy you about 5.68 hamburgers.  This is quite typical, inflation is usually eating away at our savings.  There’s a website that makes it easy for you to see how the costs of things have changed over time as a result of inflation.  It provides a calculator that allows you to enter your own dates and amounts and see the effect for yourself using the government inflation data.

Try it at:  US Inflation Calculator

The problem is that once money is disconnected from something real, it can change in value quietly over time.  For much of the United States’ history, our money has been buying less and less over time.  There were periods in which inflation went backwards.  Yes, that’s called deflation.  That might sound good at first, but those times are often harmful as well.  One of the most notable times that this happened in our history was the Great Depression.  If deflation is happening to money, it’s likely that it’s because people don’t have jobs or money to pay for things they need.

Whether our problem is inflation or deflation, disconnecting money from something that is real is not a very good savings plan.  In order to plan, you kind of need to know how many hamburgers you will get to eat, shoes you will get to buy or tanks of gas you will be able to fill.  Thankfully, there are still some tools at our disposal that can help us combat the effects of inflation like I Bonds and TIPS.  They’re not quite as easy as putting money under your mattress, but at least they are available.