After decades when inflation has been hard to find, the prices of everything from cars to computers have jumped in the past year. Nobody knows for sure whether—or for how long—this surge in inflation may continue, but smart investors know that rising prices can make bonds with fixed interest payments less valuable. Bonds generally offer a series of fixed interest payments that represent a percentage of the face value of the bond. When inflation picks up and prices rise, the purchasing power of the interest payment decreases, meaning those fixed payments buy less stuff.
To help reduce the risk that inflation poses to bondholders, the US Treasury created Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) in 1997. These are bonds whose interest payments are designed to rise when inflation does. They are available in 5-year, 10-year, and 30-year maturities.
The inflation protection offered by TIPS comes at a price, though. TIPS are more expensive than conventional Treasury bonds and higher-priced bonds yield less than lower-priced bonds. For example, as of April 6, 2022, 5-year TIPS yielded −0.62% while conventional 5-year Treasury bonds paid 2.69%.
So why would anyone buy a Treasury bond with a lower than typical, or even negative yield? For investors who believe that inflation will rise, the answer may be that lower yields today are worth accepting in exchange for higher principal and interest payments in the future.
How TIPS adjust to inflation
TIPS yields are based on their current amount of principal. When inflation rises, the principal of TIPS adjusts higher, and the payments go up along with it. Let's look at a hypothetical example to understand how TIPS do this.
Risks of TIPS
Besides offering protection from inflation, TIPS also pose very little risk of default because they are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. However, they do not protect bondholders from all types of risk. Indeed, if inflation gives way to deflation and the consumer price index turns negative, principal and interest rate payments on TIPS will adjust downward and investors may wish they held conventional bonds instead. It's also possible to lock in a loss in real terms if you buy a TIPS with a negative real yield and hold it to maturity. This could happen even if inflation picks up enough that the bond's nominal yield turns positive because the total return on a TIPS can never exceed the rate of inflation.
TIPS are also subject to interest rate risk, just like conventional Treasurys. That means when interest rates rise, the market value of these bonds is likely to fall. In fact, TIPS may be more sensitive to changes in interest rates than conventional Treasurys of the same maturity. Rate risk may be managed by holding individual TIPS bonds to maturity, as in a bond ladder. If you hold TIPS until they mature, you will receive either the adjusted principal or the original principal, whichever amount is greater.
TIPS and taxes
Another important difference between a TIPS and a conventional Treasury is that 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. Semi-annual interest payments on TIPS are subject to federal income tax, just like payments on conventional Treasury securities.
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 are exempt from state and local income taxes. Investors should consult with their own tax advisors with regard to their specific situation prior to making any investment decisions with tax consequences.
Watching the breakeven rates
One way investors can determine whether TIPS or conventional Treasurys may make more sense for their portfolios is to look at what is called the breakeven inflation rate. This is the rate of inflation at which a TIPS and a conventional Treasury of the same maturity would both deliver the same inflation-adjusted return until they mature. For example, if a 5-year TIPS yielded −0.62% while a conventional 5-year Treasury bond paid 2.69% as of April 6, 2022, the breakeven for the 5-year bonds would be 3.31%. If actual inflation exceeds the breakeven rate in the future, the adjustment to the TIPS will eventually provide a higher real return than the conventional bond. However, if inflation comes in lower than the breakeven rate, the conventional bond will provide a better return.
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. Auctions are held in January, April, July, and October. 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. Log in to Fidelity.comLog In Required
Fidelity also offers research tools including the Mutual Fund and ETF evaluators on Fidelity.com.