In a recent article on MarketWatch, Chris Martenson asserts that the Fed’s low interest rate policy and quantitative easing in recent years is deliberately stealing from savers. This article has elicited a big response, with almost 800 comments and almost 2000 likes on Facebook. The key point of the article is that the Fed’s policy of holding down interest rates to stimulate the economy has reduced the income provided by Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs) to extremely low levels. In this way, the Fed’s policy can certainly be viewed as harmful to people trying to live on the income from bonds and other very low risk investments. This Fed-bashing rhetoric is far from the whole story, though.
The total impact of very low interest rates on savers and conservative investors is somewhat more complex than the MarketWatch piece suggests. Subdued inflation in recent years, one of the reasons that the Fed cites for keeping interest rates low, also means savers are seeing lower rates of price increase in the goods and services they buy. With very low current inflation, you simply don’t need as much yield as when inflation is higher. It would be wonderful for conservative investors to have low inflation and high yields from risk-free accounts, but that situation is effectively impossible for extended periods of time. All in all, low inflation is typically a good thing for people living in a fixed income.
Another effect of continued low interest rates is that bond investors have fared very well. The trailing 15-year annualized return of the Vanguard Intermediate bond Index (VBMFX) is 5.4%, as compared to 4.5% for the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX). Falling rates over this period have driven bond prices upwards, which has greatly benefitted investors holding bonds over this period.
One interesting related charge leveled by the MarketWatch piece (and also in a recent New York Times article) is that the Fed policy has exacerbated income inequality and that the wealthy are benefitting from low rates while less-wealthy retirees living on fixed incomes are being hurt. Low interest rates have helped the stock market to deliver high returns in recent years and it is wealthier people who benefit most from market gains. In addition, wealthier people are more likely to be able to qualify to refinance their mortgages to take advantage of low rates. The implication here is that less wealthy people cannot afford to take advantage of the benefits of low rates and that these people, implicitly, are probably holding assets in low-yield risk-free assets such as savings accounts or CDs. This is, however, somewhat misleading. Poorer retired households receive a disproportionate share of their income from Social Security, which provides constant inflation-adjusted income.
While investors in Treasury bonds, savings accounts, and CDs are seeking riskless return, money held in these assets does not help to drive economic growth, and this is precisely why the Fed policy is to make productive assets (in the form of investments in corporate bonds and equity) more attractive than savings accounts and certificates of deposit. So, the Fed is attempting to drive money into productive investments in economic growth that will create jobs and should, ultimately, benefit the economy as a whole. One must remember that the Fed has no mandate to provide investors with a risk-free after-inflation return.
It is certainly understandable that people trying to maintain bond ladders that produce their retirement income are frustrated and concerned by continued low interest rates and the subsequent low yields available from bonds. Given that inflation is also very low, however, low bond yields are partly offset by more stable prices for goods and services. It is true that the Fed’s policies are intended to get people to do something productive with their wealth like investing in stocks, bonds, or other opportunities. It is also the case that older and more conservative investors world prefer to reap reasonable income from essentially risk-free investments. Substantial yield with low risk is something of a pipe dream, though. Investors are always trying to determine whether the yield provided by income-generating assets is worth the risk. We may look back and conclude that the Fed’s economic stimulus was too expensive, ineffective, or both, but this will only be clear far down the road.