To Save The Stock Market, The Fed Threatens Destruction Of Trillions In Middle-Class Retirement
The Federal Reserve, which these days seems to be the only major part of the federal government capable of operating drama-free, has done a lot to help keep our economy afloat. It has cut interest rates to unprecedented low levels, bought billions of dollars of corporate IOUs, helped stabilize the debt markets and helped rescue a stock market that had begun falling sharply in mid-February when the COVID-19 recession started and that seemed headed for a crash.
In the process, the Fed has indirectly provided support to house prices and to the vital home construction business by forcing down mortgage interest rates to all-time lows of about 3%. Given that home equity is a major asset for many middle-class Americans, supporting home prices is especially important. As is supporting the home construction industry, which is a major source of blue-collar jobs.
But if you dig deeper, you’ll see that the Fed is unintentionally worsening economic inequality by providing the most help to Americans who are least in need of it. And it’s also putting stress on the middle class’ most important asset: retirement benefits.
Higher stock prices are great for people (including me) who own a lot of stocks, but those people are primarily the top 10% of the country, in terms of wealth. According to Fed statistics, more than half of stocks — 52% — are owned by the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and 88% are owned by the top 10%.
To show you a different aspect of helping the upper class but not the working class, the Fed’s securities purchases include buying debt issued by firms that are laying off workers while paying substantial dividends to shareholders. And for some imprudent or troubled corporate borrowers, the Fed’s moves have been hugely helpful.
But those moves are hurting prudent savers of modest means by greatly reducing the income they can earn on Treasury securities and other no-risk investments such as bank certificates of deposit. That tends to drive people seeking income into the stock market, where their capital is at risk. By contrast, if you buy a Treasury security, you’re sure of getting your money back when the security comes due, even though the security’s market value will fluctuate both up and down while you hold it.
Interest rates are so low that they’ve largely erased the key benefit — income — Treasury bonds are theoretically supposed to provide over stocks. If you own a low-cost Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund, you’re getting much more income from dividends than the interest you’d earn having the same amount invested in a 10-year Treasury note. For example, the dividend yield (a year’s worth of dividends divided by the current market price) on Admiral shares of Vanguard’s S&P 500 fund is more than double the interest yield of a 10-year Treasury. It’s even higher than the yield on a 30-year Treasury bond, something that you rarely see.
The yield on the Vanguard fund was 1.65% as of Sept. 30, the most recent available date. As I write this, the yield on a 10-year Treasury, the security it generally makes the most sense for a retail investor to buy and hold to maturity, was 0.76%. The yield on the 30-year Treasury was 1.56%.