There’s no doubt about it: Interest rate returns have been poor for years. But if you are seeking a super-safe and guaranteed rate of return on an investment, all hope is not lost.
Let’s be clear — generally, the safest investments produce the lowest yields. And while the investments are certainly safe, there is an often-overlooked risk you should be aware of: inflation. A safe place to park your money might return 2% guaranteed, but if inflation reaches 4%, did you actually make anything in return? The answer is no.
That said, according to this government website, inflation is just over 2%, so considering the below safe investments is not a terrible idea.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
CDs are an investment contract you have with a bank to pay you a guaranteed rate of return when you deposit money for a specified amount of time. CDs are among the safest investments out there, since there is virtually no risk of loss of principal. Moreover, they come with FDIC insurance of up to $250,000 per depositor.
Terms for CDs can range anywhere from 90 days to 10 years. The more you deposit and the longer you leave it with the bank, the higher the guaranteed rate of return. For example, a deposit of $1,000 today, held for one year, is going to yield around 1.3% ($13). But if you deposit $10,000 and agree to hold it for five years, it will yield around 2% ($200).
Money Market Funds
Money market funds are basically REALLY safe mutual funds. Money market fund managers invest only in short-term, interest-bearing securities, such as U.S. government bonds. And just as with CDs, if you invest in a money market fund through a bank, you will have FDIC insurance. The incidence of loss of principal on money market funds is practically nonexistent.
So what kinds of returns can you get from U.S. government bonds these days? Well, in 2007, you could invest in a money market fund and get a 4.5% return. Today, in 2017, average returns hang around 1% to 1.5%.
U.S. Treasury Securities
U.S. Treasury Securities are a way for you to buy America’s debt. You can purchase U.S. Treasury securities through the Treasury Department’s bond portal, Treasury Direct. In denominations as small as $100, the government will sell you Treasury bills (maturities of 52 weeks or fewer), Treasury notes (maturities of two, three, five, seven and 10 years) and/or Treasury bonds (30-year maturities).
Since it is the government you are buying from, the interest payments on whatever form of security you purchased are guaranteed. However, keep in mind that the principal, the money you invest, could decline if interest rates rise. For that reason, it you’re looking for 100% safety you should stick with Treasury bills and short-term Treasury notes.
Current Treasury yields look like this (as of Feb. 28. 2017):
- One-year Treasury bill, 0.88%
- Five-year Treasury note, 1.89%
- 10-year Treasury note, 2.36%
- Treasury bond, 2.97%
Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS)
TIPS are another investment option offered by the U.S. Treasury. TIPS pay interest like Treasury bonds, notes and bills — but TIPS actually account for inflation! So at first glance, even though the interest rates for TIPS appear to be lower (0.8% for a 30-year), you need to remember that the real return is adjusted for inflation, which moves TIPS closer to the yields on other government securities of comparable maturities.
TIPS can also be purchased and held through Treasury Direct.
There are caveats with TIPS that you should be aware of:
- The principal adjustment for inflation isn’t paid until the securities mature
- The principal adjustment for inflation is fully taxable, which reduces the protection they provide
- Increases in principal are taxable for the year in which they occur, even if your TIPS hasn’t matured — meaning you could pay tax on income you haven’t received
And this is just a personal opinion, but the U.S. government determines inflation using the CPI Index. I have serious doubts that the CPI is a reliable indication of the true rate of inflation. The index has been modified over the years to make it appear that inflation is lower than it is. If the Bureau of Labor issues an inflation rate of 1.5%, but the real rate of inflation is more like 3%, you’ll actually lose money on your investment in real terms. So when you consider TIPS, remember it is the government’s perspective of inflation that’s being accounted for — not the inflation you encounter when you’re at the grocery store or buying a new home.
High Dividend Stocks
Though not technically fixed-income investments, high dividend stocks can be considered safe and offer an almost guaranteed rate of return. With dividends, there is always the risk of loss of principal, because the price of an individual share could decline at anytime. But at the same time, there is also the possibility of principal growth, if the price of the stock rises.
Investor Junkie keeps track of the 50 companies from the S&P that have increased their dividends to shareholders for 25 years straight. There are high dividend stocks available from iconic companies that have a long history of paying out and increasing dividends. Some of those stocks include:
- Coca-Cola (KO) currently pays an annual dividend yield of 3.53%
- Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) currently pays an annual dividend yield of 2.62%
- Procter & Gamble (PG) currently pays an annual dividend yield of 2.94%
- 3M (MMM) currently pays an annual dividend yield of 2.62%
Municipal bonds are just like U.S. Treasury bonds, except you are buying the debt at a state or city level, not at a federal level. “Munis,” just like Treasury bonds, provide a guaranteed rate of return, AND the income you earn from munis is tax-free. But there are two things to keep in mind:
- Munis are long-term investments, generally 20-plus years
- Interest rates are currently at historic lows
That’s a toxic mix. Long-term bonds run inverse to interest rates. This means if interest rates rise, bond prices go down. So if you invest in a 20-year municipal bond issued by your state at 2% today, and two years from now the going rate for a similar bond is 4%, the market value of your bond will tank.
There is a workaround however. By investing in short-term municipal bond funds, you can collect tax-free income without the risk of losing your principal to market reactions from interest rate swings. One such fund is the Vanguard Short-Term Tax-Exempt Fund Investor Shares (VWSTX). The fund invests in high-quality, short-term municipal securities with an average duration of one to two years and has a 10-year average return of 1.64%. If your combined federal and state marginal tax rate is at 40%, the equivalent return on a taxable investment would be around 2.73%.
I hesitated to include annuities here because they incorporate a fairly long list of both positive and negative attributes.
On the positive side:
- Annuities often pay returns considerably higher than other fixed-income investments
- Annuities grow on a tax-deferred basis, even though they are not held in a tax-sheltered retirement plan
- Annuity returns can be guaranteed by the insurance company
- Annuities provide you income for life… that will continue to be paid to you even if the principal value has been depleted
On the negative side:
- An annuity may pay a 6% rate of return but charge you 2.5% in fees
- No liquidity — by investing in an annuity, you are investing in future income and will not collect back that original investment
Annuities are better suited for retirees strictly seeking income, because once you invest in an annuity, the principal that you invest will never be available to you — BUT you will have guaranteed income for life. So think about where you are in life and whether or not this is an option to explore. We go into more detail on annuities in this article.
Paying Off Debt — An Unexpected Guaranteed Rate of Return
Hands down, this is probably the only true risk-free chance you have at earning double-digit returns on your investments. And it will be virtually a guaranteed rate of return at that.
Let’s say that you owe $10,000 in credit card debt, with an annual interest rate of 14%. By paying off the card, you are in effect getting a 14% annual return on your investment, as a result of the interest that you no longer have to pay.
What’s more, if you have liquid cash invested at an average of, say, 2% but you have credit card debt requiring double-digit interest, you are losing money by not paying off that debt. Paying off debt is a guaranteed win.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Lending
P2P lending is when you, as the investor, “play the role of banker” for individuals in need of a loan. These individuals may need funds to consolidate debt, pay medical bills, buy a car or even invest in a business. And for one reason or another, they have have chosen to borrow from P2P rather than a traditional bank. As the “lender,” you then receive the interest on that loan, directly. Thus, this is one way to earn a steady return on your money.
Investor Junkie has tried Lending Club over the years and had great results. That said, all P2P lending platforms do carry the risk of borrower default. For one thing, the loans are not secured. For another, the platforms mostly came into existence after the 2008 financial meltdown, which is to say that they really haven’t weathered a full-blown recession to give an accurate idea as to how well they will perform.
The low interest environment we are in today, coupled with the booming stock market, makes it tough to find returns of 2% to 4% attractive. However, if you simply want to preserve capital, which is a great idea, any of the options mentioned above might work.
Let me know if you have any questions. I check the comments and am happy to help.