Tag Archives: income

Is the Fed Really “Stealing from Savers”?

Federal ReserveIn 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.

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How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

In the financial advisory business, one of the most pressing and controversial topics is how much money people need to save during their working years in order to provide for long-term retirement income.  The research on this topic has evolved quite a lot in recent years, and a recent issue of Money magazine features a series of articles representing the current view on this critical topic.  These articles, based around interviews with a number of the current thought leaders on this topic, deserve to be widely read and discussed.

The series of articles in Money kicks off with perspectives by Wade Pfau.  Pfau’s introductory piece suggests a difficult future for American workers.  A traditional rule-of-thumb in retirement planning is called the 4% rule.  This rule states that a retiree can plan to draw annual income equal to 4% of the value of her portfolio in the first year of retirement and increase this amount each year to keep up with inflation.  Someone who retires with a $1 Million portfolio could draw $40,000 in income in the first year of retirement and then increase that by 2.5%-3% per year, and have a high level of confidence that the portfolio will last thirty years.  It is assumed that the portfolio is invested in 60%-70% stocks and 30%-40% bonds.  The 4% rule was originally derived based on the long-term historical returns and risks for stocks and bonds.  The problem that Pfau has noted, however, is that both stocks and bonds are fairly expensive today relative to their values over the period of time used to calculate the 4% rule.  For bonds, this means that yields are well below their historical averages and historical yields are a good predictor of the future return from bonds.  The expected return from stocks is partly determined by the average price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, and the P/E for stocks is currently well-above the long-term historical average.  High P/E tends to predict lower future returns for stocks, and vice versa.  For a detailed discussion of these relationships, see this paper.  In light of current prices of stocks and bonds, Pfau concludes that the 4% rule is far too optimistic and proposes that investors plan for something closer to a 3% draw rate from their portfolios in retirement.  I also explored this topic in an article last year.

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Economic Inequality

Income inequality is increasingly acknowledged as a key economic issue for the world.  The topic is a major theme at Davos this year.  Economic inequality is also an increasingly common topic in U.S. politics.

A new study has found that economic mobility does not appear to have changed appreciably over the past thirty years, even as the wealth gap has grown enormously.   The authors analyzed the probability that a child born into the poorest 20% of households would move into the top 20% of households as an adult.  The numbers have not changed in three decades.

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial accumulation of wealth at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  The richest 1% of Americans now own 25% of all of the wealth in the U.S.  The share of national income accruing to the richest 1% has doubled since 1980.  In contrast, median household income has shown no gains, adjusted for inflation, since the late 1980’s and has dropped substantially from its previous peak in the late 1990’s.

Why is this happening?

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The Collapse of the American Net Worth

Many of you are painfully aware of how many friends or family members are out of work, now under-employed, or who have lost their homes. Geoff Considine, a leading contributor to the Portfolioist, provides his take on what we’re calling the “collapse” in household net worth, starting with a recently published report released from the Federal Reserve called the “Survey of Consumer Finances” (SCF).

This study, performed every three years, provides an analysis of household income and wealth across America, and the results will astound you. The SCF is well-worth reading if you want to get a handle on the state of Americans’ finances—especially if you want to see how those same finances have changed dramatically in just three short years. Continue reading

Housing Prices and the Economy: Is There Any Good News?

New data shows that housing prices are not improving.

Nationally, prices have now dropped 34.4% from their peak in 2006.  Prices are now the lowest they have been since the end of 2002, according to the Case/Shiller index.  Robert Shiller, co-creator of the index and long-term researcher on housing prices, warns that risks remain and that we may be seeing a broad shift in consumers’ beliefs with regard to the desirability and risks of owning a house.  In fact, Shiller speculates that it may take decades for suburban single-family housing prices to recover.

A chart of the 20-city composite of U.S. house prices tells the story (below):

(Case/Shiller 20-City U.S. Home Price Index, Seasonally Adjusted. Source: Standard and Poors.)

Nationally, home prices more than doubled from 2000-2006.  From mid-2006 to mid-2009, prices dropped as dramatically as they rose during the boom.  We experienced a slight bounce from mid-2009 to mid-2010, but prices started to decline again in 2010 and are now at their lowest point in a decade.

Implications of Weak Housing Values

Beyond the obvious impacts on homeowners’ net worth, what are the implications of weak housing values for the economy?

First, for many Americans, their houses represent most of their net worth.  What’s more, less wealthy households tend to have a higher percentage of their net worth in home equity.  A continued decline in house prices tends to increase wealth inequality, as well as reducing household net worth as a whole.  Given that fewer and fewer Americans have traditional employer-sponsored pension plans, reductions in household net worth translate directly into fewer financial resources available to fund retirement and other long-term liabilities.

Second, we have the wealth effect.  People tend to feel wealthier when the paper value of their assets is higher, and they tend to spend more.  This may be an especially powerful driver of consumption when homeowners can easily use home equity loans to fund purchases of consumer goods.  A number of studies have found that wealth in the form of home equity is a larger driver of consumer spending than other forms of wealth.

Third, we have the manifestation of de-leveraging among individual investors.  People who lose their homes to foreclosure are not likely to purchase new homes.  In addition, baby boomers who are saddled with mortgages they cannot really afford are likely to sell their homes to get out from under the risks that such leverage (e.g. mortgaged) creates.  Gary Shilling recently outlined this scenario.  With a smaller pool of ready buyers, this de-leveraging across the residential real estate market is a deflationary force.

Is There Any Good News?

Yes, some. Buying a house is looking more and more attractive relative to renting.  With low interest rates and lower prices, the cost of purchasing a house is lower than it has been over most of the last ten years.  Ken Johnson, a professor who studies real estate, and the buy-vs.-rent problem in particular, concludes that buying looks like a better bet than renting.  On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that potential home buyers, and especially first-time buyers, will be very wary of borrowing large sums of money to purchase an asset that may be hard to sell (liquidity risk) and that has the potential to drop as much as we have seen housing prices fall in recent years.

On the other hand, the implications of the most recent Case/Shiller numbers are not very positive.  The best that can be said is that housing prices have shifted from a dramatic free fall to a slower downward drift.  It is hard to tell whether this persistent declined in housing prices is a symptom or a cause of an ongoing economic malaise.  For wealthier Americans, the massive upswing in the stock market has offset declines in housing values.  For less-well-off Americans, the continued erosion of net worth suggests it will be a very slow recovery in terms of personal wealth and in terms of a sustained recovery in consumer spending, which has historically depended on the “wealth effect.”

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Dividend Stocks vs. Bonds: Are They Worth the Risk?

One of the recurring themes in the financial press in recent years is a warning to income-oriented investors not to pile into dividend-paying stocks to boost portfolio income. The Wall Street Journal has a recent article on this topic titled, “Why Dividend Stocks Aren’t the New Bonds.”  This article is motivated by the fact that $17 billion flowed into equity-income funds in 2010 even as $80 billion flowed out of U.S. equity funds. 

 The arguments made by the WSJ article are similar to those in a November 2011 blog post by Vanguard’s Chief Economist, Continue reading

Understanding France’s Credit Rating Downgrade

Standard and Poor’s downgraded France’s credit rating last week from AAA to AA+.  While this downgrade has gotten a lot of press coverage, there are a number of topics surrounding the downgrade that are worth noting.

First, France now has the same credit rating from S&P as the United States.  As you’ll remember, S&P downgraded U.S. sovereign debt from AAA to AA+ back in August 2011.  Second, the yield on France’s 10-year bonds is at 3.08%. While this yield is well above the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield of 1.9%, it is certainly not a sign that the bond market sees substantial credit or interest rate risk associated with France. The media response to the downgrade is reminiscent of the situation in July last year when there was a media frenzy surrounding the possibility that the U.S. would fail to raise the debt ceiling and technically default on its debts.

Third, we can better understand the markets for debt (bonds) if we also look at the markets for equity (stocks).  They are related.  The appetite of investors for risk (and that of the market as a whole) varies through time.  When investors are broadly risk averse, they are less willing to Continue reading