There’s a cliche at least as old as I am, that while ATM’s were expected to reduce the demand for bank tellers, banks actually increased the number of tellers they employed, for the counter-intuitive reason that a bank branch was much easier to administer once simple deposits and withdrawals were handled by machines. Instead of wiping out the retail branch, they instead exploded, with one or two human tellers handling all the business that endless brass windows used to be required for.
I mentioned this to my partner today in the context of seeing a teller redeem a US savings bond, something that I guessed any given bank employee was only asked to do once or twice a year; even with a computer’s assistance, I remarked, it must be a struggle to remember training they use so infrequently.
Then, to my amazement, my partner replied: “US savings bonds? I think I’ve got some of them around here somewhere.”
The documents she dug up were so strange and so old even the Treasury Department only reluctantly acknowledges their validity. But I couldn’t help but investigate what on Earth these faded documents were for.
Some unique features of Series EE savings bonds
So-called “Series EE” savings bonds have three strange features:
- their value is guaranteed to double within a specified time frame (currently 20 years);
- the owner may choose to report the taxable interest on the bonds upon redemption;
- and the interest may be excluded from federal income taxes if the entire value of the bond is used for certain higher education expenses.
Like most federal debt instruments, the interest on the bonds is entirely excluded from state income taxes.
My partner’s bonds, in some cases dating back to 1993, were purchased at half of face value, while Series EE bonds today are purchased at face value, but let’s set aside that technical nuance for now. I’m more interested in the question, what role could Series EE bonds play in an investment allocation?
A binary interest rate
If you hold a $50 Series EE savings bond for 20 years, it is guaranteed to be redeemable for $100, with the $50 in interest taxable at the federal level but exempted from state and local taxes, which my trusty financial calculator tells me works out to a 3.53% annual interest rate.
If you hold the bond for any period of time less than 20 years, it will earn interest at a preposterously low interest rate (0.10% as of this writing, and for many years prior).
Annual interest rate resets
Series EE savings bonds can be cashed in, with accrued interest, after 1 year (with a 3-month interest penalty), or 5 years (with no interest penalty). That means every year you have the opportunity to recalculate whether you are better off holding onto the bond and getting closer to your 20-year 3.53% payout, or resetting the 20-year holding period at higher prevailing rates.
These breakeven points are trivial to calculate (these values aren’t quite right because for simplicity I’m rounding 0.10% APY down to 0%):
- after one year, if interest rates shoot up from 0.10% to 3.72%, make the exchange;
- after 5 years, they must reach 4.73%;
- 10 years in, they must be 7.18% per year;
- and with 5 years left to go, you’ll need to earn 14.87%.
Another way of expressing this is that the closer your bonds get to maturity, the higher the interest rate you should think of them as earning: 3.53% may not be impressive 20 years out, but a 100% interest rate one year out should convince you to hang onto them almost no matter what, when their value jumps from $50.96 to $100.
Series EE bonds could be risk-free complements to 529 plans
Besides a nominal allocation to high-yield corporate debt, I own essentially no bonds, for the simple reason that I’m not smart enough to pick individual bonds, and investment-grade mutual funds don’t pay enough interest to merit my attention. I prefer instead to put my “stable” savings into high-yield accounts like the ones I discussed last week.
In tax-advantaged accounts like 529 college savings plans, where investments compound tax free and can be withdrawn tax and penalty free for eligible expenses, owning “safe” low-yield bonds makes even less sense. But 529 plans designated for actual education expenses pose a conundrum: what if your stock holdings happen to drop in value the very year you need them?
Series EE bonds offer one kind of solution: making a bond allocation to Series EE bonds gives half the tax protection of a 529 account (state, but not federal, income tax exclusion). If the stock investments in your 529 account are shooting out the lights, you can make withdrawals tax and penalty free when your beneficiary enrolls.
On the other hand, if your beneficiary happens to enter college during a stock market slowdown, cash out the Series EE bonds and let the stocks in your 529 plan ride. Subject to income limits, potentially all the interest on your bonds could be exempt from both state and federal taxes.
Just a few more complications
This is a modestly interesting idea, and I’m glad I looked into it, but there are a few major problems with actually pursuing this as a college financing strategy.
First, the required holding period for Series EE bonds in order to trigger the special interest rate is 20 years. Since most Americans enter college between 17 and 19, you’d have to start planning awfully early, like, zygote-early, in order to make a Series EE investment part of your college financing plan.
Second, purchases of Series EE bonds are limited to $10,000 per Social Security number, per year. In light of the above, you’d need to load up on bonds to the maximum immediately if you wanted to be sure to meet the requirements for both the full interest rate and, potentially, the federal income tax exemption.
When I visited the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, West Virginia, there was a lovely exhibit on the financing of World War II, with carefully preserved books of “War Stamps” and posters exhorting those on the home front to buy War Bonds. But I’ve never read a good account of exactly how these confusing documents worked.
Series EE savings bonds seem to be somewhat similar to those War Stamps: purchased by relatives, forgotten by recipients, stuffed in drawers and safe deposit boxes, and offering random windfalls when discovered years or decades later.