Great news!!! As of May 1st, I-Bonds offer a 9.62 percent interest rate. But for most middle-class Americans, there is nothing here to celebrate. As currently structured, I-Bonds are not designed for lower or middle-class people.
I-Bonds were presumably created to try to get middle-class people to save more money and spend less. In theory I-Bonds should be especially helpful in times of inflation to reduce overall consumer demand as well as in recessions in providing savings to draw upon to keep consumer demand from falling too abruptly. The I-Bond savings limit of $10,000 per person was supposed to benefit the middle class without giving the wealthy another way of leveraging their wealth to further exacerbate economic inequality.
We all like to think of ourselves as being in the middle class. But remember that two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree and forty percent of Americans could not come up with $400 in an emergency without having to borrow money. Most of the wealth of the sixty-six percent of Americans who own their own home is tied up in the value of that home. Still, getting people to save more money is a worthy goal.
However, the other features of an I-Bond limit its usefulness to the very people that I-Bonds were created to benefit. Money invested in I-Bonds may not be withdrawn for one year. Money withdrawn after a year, but before five years, is subject to a loss of three months of interest payments. Wealthy people have very low marginal propensities to consume because giving them a little bit more or less money has virtually no effect on their spending patterns. However, poor and middle-class people have high marginal propensities to consume in that they adjust their spending up or down significantly as they get more or less money at the margin. Consequently, for I-Bonds to serve as an automatic stabilizer in times of inflation and recession, the poor and middle-class should be the primary beneficiaries of I-Bonds, but they are not.
The challenge is to design an attractive flexible investment that will work for poor and middle-class people and to make sure that they know about it and how to access it easily even if they are currently unbanked or underbanked.
People with little money need access to their money whenever an unexpected expense arises. For example, an automobile accident may require the repair or replacement of their vehicle. A medical problem may require unexpected expenditures. An unanticipated increase in rent may mean withdrawing money from savings while looking for a cheaper place to live. I-Bonds just don’t work well for people who would like to save more but can’t afford to tie up their money for extended periods.
Since most people in the middle-class are not familiar with the bond market anyway, they probably don’t know about I-Bonds to begin with so they may not feel left out of this opportunity to try to stay ahead of inflation.
Unfortunately, what at first appears to be a great wealth-building opportunity for the middle-class, turns out to be just another snack for the wealthy (or at least for those wealthy who want to bother with such a small amount of money ($10,000)).