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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Whither the savings in the "savings rate?"

The excerpts below from a NYT article display how people's actual savings is threatened by the zero interest rate policy of the Fed (a back-door bailout as explained elsewhere on Demand Side). The savings rate that is going up is the difference between income and spending. This is debt service, not actual savings. Meanwhile people who depend on their savings to generate income are not so lucky. Actual savings is being eroded by the need to dip into it to pay for current expenses.

Ben Bernanke is not a bad man. It's just that he should be employed directly in some bank's accounting arm rather than as the manager of the financial system. It is the public interest that has to be paramount, not that of the financial institutions.
At Tiny Rates, Saving Money Costs Investors
By Stephanie Strom
New York Times
December 25, 2009


Experts say risk-averse investors are effectively financing a second bailout of financial institutions, many of which have also raised fees and interest rates on credit cards.

“What the average citizen doesn’t explicitly understand is that a significant part of the government’s plan to repair the financial system and the economy is to pay savers nothing and allow damaged financial institutions to earn a nice, guaranteed spread,” said William H. Gross, co-chief investment officer of the Pacific Investment Management Company, or Pimco. “It’s capitalism, I guess, but it’s not to be applauded.”

Mr. Gross said he read his monthly portfolio statement twice because he could not believe that the line “Yield on cash” was 0.01 percent. At that rate, he said, it would take him 6,932 years to double his money.

Many think the Federal Reserve is fueling a stock market bubble by keeping rates so low that investors decide to bet on stocks instead. Mr. Parks of Better Investing moved more money into the stock market early this year, when C.D.’s he held began maturing and he could not nearly recover the income they had generated by rolling them over.

He began investing some of the money in blue chip stocks with a dividend yield of at least 3 percent and even managed to find an oil-and-gas limited partnership that offered 8 percent.

Mr. Parks said, however, that he would not pursue that strategy as more of his C.D.’s matured. “What worked in the first quarter of this year isn’t as relevant, because the market has come up so much,” he said.

No one is advising a venture into higher-risk investments. Katie Nixon, chief investment officer for the northeast region at Northern Trust, said that, in general, “no one should be taking risks with their pillow money.”

“What people are paying for is safety and security,” she said, “and that’s probably just right.”

People who rely on income from such investments for support, however, are being forced to consider new options.

Eileen Lurie, 75, is taking out a reverse mortgage to help offset the decline in returns on her investments tied to interest rates. Reverse mortgages have a checkered reputation, but Ms. Lurie said her bank was going out of its way to explain the product to her.

“These banks don’t want to be held responsible for thousands of seniors standing in bread lines,” she said.

Such mortgages allow people who are 62 and older to convert equity in their homes into cash tax-free and without any impact on Social Security or Medicare payments. The loans are repaid after death.

“If your assets aren’t appreciating and aren’t producing any income, you’re getting eaten up in this interest rate environment,” said Peter Strauss, a lawyer who advises the elderly. “A reverse mortgage is one way of making a very large asset produce income.”

Eve Wilmore, 93, has watched returns on her C.D.’s drop to between 1 percent and 2 percent from about 5 percent a year or so ago. Yet the Social Security Administration recently raised her Medicare Part B premium based on those higher rates she had been earning. “I’m being hit from both sides,” Mrs. Wilmore said. “There’s some way I can apply for a reconsideration, and I’m going to fight it. I have to.”

She said she was reluctant to redeploy her money into higher-risk investments. “I don’t know what my medical bills will be from here on in, and so I want to keep the money where I can get to it easily if I need it,” she said.

Peter Gomori, who taught a course on money and investing for Dorot, a nonprofit that offers services for the elderly, did not advise his students on investment strategies but said that if he had, he would probably have told them to sit tight.

“I know interest rates are very low for Treasury securities and bank products, but that isn’t going to be forever,” he said.

But investment professionals doubt rates will rise any time soon — or to any level close to those before the crash.

“What the futures market is telling me,” Mr. Gross said, “is that in April 2011, these savers that are currently earning nothing will be earning 1.25 percent.”

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