TIPS – Treasury Inflation Protected Securities Fundamentals

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (known as TIPS), are inflation indexed bonds issued by the US Government. But what do they really offer you as an investor and how exactly do they work???

First of all, there’s a lot of investor angst regarding future inflationary expectations. After all – it’s a normal concern with the government deficit exploding to unfathomable proportions on a minute by minute basis (not to mention interest rates overall are at historically low levels, and when rates revert to the statistical mean inflation is a likely counterpart to that occurrence).

TIPS can be purchased direct from the US government through the treasury, a bank, broker or dealer – or most preferably through a low cost index fund such as DFA Inflation Protected Securities (DIPSX). Individual TIPS are purchased according to an auction process, where you can either accept whatever yield is determined at the auction or set a minimum yield you’re willing to accept. In the auction method, if your requested yield target isn’t met – your purchase request will not be executed.

TIPS come in 5, 10, and 30 year maturities and are bought in increments of $100. The return of principal AND ongoing interest payments depend on the TIPS principal value adjustment for the consumer price index (the CPI which is the most commonly used measure of inflation). The coupon payment however, is a constant and stays the same for the life of the security. This is where TIPS get a little tricky – while the coupon payment remains the same, the TIP itself fluctuates meaning the actual yield you receive will vary.

With the underlying TIPS unit value fluctuating based on the CPI, each coupon payment interest rate fluctuates (fixed dollar payment divided by a fluctuating par value equals a floating interest rate). So while the principal value fluctuates, the interest rate is fixed. This is how the holder is protected from inflationary pressures. If inflation increases, the underlying TIPS par value increases along with it.

As with the majority of US Government debt obligations, TIPS pay their coupon semi-annually. The index for measuring the inflation rate is the non-seasonally adjusted U.S. City Average All Items Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U), published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In what situations would TIPS be a viable option for your investment portfolio? Take for example an expectation of inflationary pressures over the next five years. If you were to invest in a portfolio of TIPS, as inflation occurs the principal value of the TIPS rises to compensate you for the inflationary pressure. Your coupon payment remains the same, but your TIPS principal investment is worth more.

Now let’s look at the opposite of inflation – deflationary pressures. Should deflation occur, your principal value would drop. TIPS do have a backstop for deflation however. The TIPS maturity value payment is the greater of $100 per TIPS unit, or the adjusted current value at that time.

Treasury auctions vary by security type and date, and it’s challenging to find relevant samples for different types of issue. However here’s some real life examples of TIPS and regular 5 year treasury notes for comparison.

In a recent TIPS auction on April 26th, 2010, 5 year TIPS were priced at 99.767648 (or $99.77 per $100 par value TIPS security) with a rate of.50%. On the same day, the 5 year treasury note yield was sitting right at 2.6%. In this case, the regular 5 year treasury note is yielding roughly 5 times as much as the 5 year TIPS. Seems like a lot to give up for some inflation protection doesn’t it? The wide disparity in yield is primarily due to investor expectations of inflationary pressure (investors are willing to accept a lower interest rate for the inflation protection).

There is an upside however. Let’s look at a similar 5 year TIPS security issued last year on 4/15/2009. It was issued at $100.11 for each $100 TIPS and a rate of 1.25%. At the same time the normal 5 year treasury note yield was at 1.71% – not nearly the spread of the first noted TIPS example. That same treasury note issue today (June 5th, 2010) is indexed at 1.02858 or each TIPS is worth $102.86.

A 5 year treasury note issued on April 30, 2009 (as close as possible to the last TIPS example) priced at 99.691687 ($996.91 per $1,000 maturity par value) and yielded 1.875%. Today through TD Ameritrade where I custody client assets, that same 5 year note is priced at 101.188 ($1,011.88 per $1,000 maturity par value).

The roughly one year old 5 year treasury note has earned a return of the coupon payment (two payments at $9.375 each plus some accrued interest which we’re discounting for this example), plus an increase in principal of $14.97 which equates to a 3.37% return. For comparison, the closest issued TIPS issue from April 15, 2009 has garnered a return of two coupon payments (I’m using 10 TIPS to bring this example to parity with the $1,000 par value treasury note) of $6.25, and experienced an increase in value of $27.48 for a comparative return of 3.99%. In this example the TIPS outperforms the treasury note by a reasonable margin.

Granted, these examples aren’t perfect, but they’re close for illustrative purposes on TIPS calculations and values compared to treasury note calculations and values.

There are downsides to TIPS however – one being taxes. Should the principal value rise with inflation in a given year you’re taxed on the growth (which is NOT distributed, it’s only on paper) as if it were income. This creates somewhat of a phantom income tax – you don’t actually receive the money, but you’re taxed as if you did! The upside of this is you establish a new basis in the security and won’t be taxed on it again, and in fact if deflation occurs may have a loss to put on your tax return. Of course, don’t take my word for it – please consult your tax advisor.

In addition to the tax issue, there’s also political risk associated with the US Government (the rules can change – after all the rules change all the time!) in addition to the fact that the government calculates the CPI (who’s to say they’ve got their calculations right, and are they manipulated for other political or economic reasons?).

While TIPS are great for some investors, they’re not right for everyone, and certainly not right for an entire (or even a majority of) portfolio. However, should inflation pick up from these historically low levels over the next five years, the TIPS should comparatively do just fine compared to the regular 5 year treasury notes.

With all of the TIPS calculations noted above, still one of the best ways to hedge inflation is with a diversified portfolio of passive investment assets such as Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA Funds), and other exchange traded funds (ETF’s). At Red Rock Wealth Management, our portfolios provide a substantial amount of NON-dollar denominated assets (a great way to hedge against a weak dollar). Client portfolios consist of over 13,000 equity (stock) securities across 41 countries. In addition, many US based companies hold non-dollar assets as well, and the Red Rock Wealth Management portfolio philosophy also holds other tangible assets the government can’t “print” – such as gold, oil, and timber.

The point is, through proper investment management your risk associated with inflation can be mitigated substantially through Treasury Inflation Protected Securities AND broad diversification.

Consider adding TIPS to your portfolio for a component of inflation protection, just make sure you fully understand all of the positive AND negative aspects of TIPS!

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