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Wall Street Journal Market Watch

 

How The Fed Is Hurting Seniors

March 21, 2014

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth

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Seniors, wake up and call Janet Yellen. With an increase in interest rates next year, as Chair Yellen implied in her press conference on Wednesday, she can restore your savings accounts to relevance. The end for low rates might be in sight, and that is good news, despite the initial reaction from markets.

Chair Yellen continued the taper, and suggested that she would start to raise rates when the taper was over. The Fed has plenty of wiggle room, though, because it will keep current policies "until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability," according to the Federal Open Market Committee statement . That is a fuzzy goal that should not give much hope to those who want a sounder system.

Back in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s, you might have expected a 5% interest rate or higher on your savings to generate income for your golden years. Now, it is not even 1%.

Ten years ago, in 2004, the federal funds rate was about 1%. Then, it temporarily climbed to a plateau of about 5.25% between the summers of 2006 and 2007. However, from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2009, the rate declined to practically zero and has remained there.

Income inequality is "the defining challenge of our time," President Obama said last December, and a zero interest rate for savers contributes to inequality. Those with stock portfolios gain because asset prices are inflated as people look for higher returns. Seniors on fixed incomes have to get returns somehow, and junk bonds and riskier stocks are the answer for many.

Economists and politicians tend to believe in the greatest good for the greatest number. But the idea of a system in which the returns to frugal saving are zero with certainty, while the returns to investing money in risky high-yield stocks and bonds a form of gambling often pays off, is troubling, to say the least. It might pay for a senior to invest in riskier assets in the short run, but if interest rates rise to historical levels and the stock markets adjust down, such senior investors will suffer.

It is not only gambling that pays off, it is also borrowing. With mortgage rates at historic lows, people can take on a lot of debt.

So winners from low rates include those who want to borrow, and those who hold stocks and commodities. Losers include those who save and lend because they receive less in interest payments from their assets.

This situation disproportionately affects seniors. According to data from the Census Bureau, seniors ages 65 and over made an average of $3,239 from interest in 2012, and an average of $32,849 in total income. Thus, just under 10% of their income came from interest. In contrast, people ages 25 to 64 earned an average of $1,356 annually from interest, and $47,364 in total income. Less than 3% of income came from interest for people ages 25 to 64.

McKinsey concluded in a November 2013 report that from 2007 to 2012, defined-benefit pension plans and guaranteed-rate life insurance plans lost $270 billion of income due to the Fed’s low-interest-rate policies because they have far more interest bearing assets than liabilities. McKinsey estimated that American households have lost $360 billion of income. On average, American households are net savers.

The big winners of the Fed’s policies were the U.S. government, which gained about $900 billion, and non-financial corporations, which gained $310 billion.

McKinsey calculated that households headed by people under the age of 45 are net debtors and so have benefitted from lower rates. In particular, those households with heads ages 35 to 44 have gained $1,700 more in spending each year because of lower rates. Those under 35 gained $1,500 a year.

The losers are the seniors, especially household heads aged 75 and over, who lost $2,700 a year in income. Those aged between 65 and 74 lost $1,900.

If markets were perfectly liquid, seniors would be able to take advantage of falling interest rates to refinance their mortgages. But many seniors have no mortgage. Those that do are often unwilling to refinance. Others, even though they might want to refinance, find that their houses are worth less than the mortgage, and they cannot meet tighter credit standards.

Keeping interest rates low is not only bad for seniors and savers, it is bad for the economy as a whole. In a global marketplace, low interest rates in the United States discourage lending to the United States. The reason the Fed had to step in to buy Treasury paper is that there is lower demand because of ultra-low interest rates. When interest rates rise, and eventually they will, many parts of our financial system will have a rude awakening and a difficult adjustment. Our deficit will balloon with our high level of debt. Many businesses predicated on low interest rates will fail.

Small- and mid-sized economies cannot pretend that easy money is a successful monetary policy. Japan and Europe have tried easy money. It has not worked. The United States has performed slightly better, not because easy money is a good policy, but because people around the world still look to the dollar as a safe haven in times of trouble. And the world today has more than its fair share of troubles.

All Americans, and seniors in particular, will be better when the Fed abandons its low-interest-rate policy, despite some initial turbulence. Almost five years into the recovery, economic growth is stunted, and labor force participation rates are at 1978 levels. Seniors always tell their children they know better now they should tell Janet Yellen to let those rates rise.

Original Source: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-the-fed-is-hurting-seniors-2014-03-21

 

 
 
 

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