The 0% Solution: Fed Strands Bank Savers, Retirees
"On the second concern, my colleagues and I are very much aware that holders of interest-bearing assets, such as certificates of deposit, are receiving very low returns," Bernanke said. "But low interest rates also support the value of many other assets that Americans own, such as homes and businesses large and small. Indeed, in general, healthy investment returns cannot be sustained in a weak economy, and of course it is difficult to save for retirement or other goals without the income from a job. Thus, while low interest rates do impose some costs, Americans will ultimately benefit most from the healthy and growing economy that low interest rates help promote."
In effect, Bernanke is telling bank savers and retirees that Federal Reserve policy is propping up the value of their homes, and that high bank-savings rates are an impediment to economic growth, and thus off the table in terms of policy.
In its official release, the Fed also noted that inflation shouldn't exceed 2%, thus further bolstering its case that low-rates won't harm the economy.
But bank savers and Americans living on fixed incomes can point to higher oil and gas prices and say "lifestyle" prices are rising, no matter what the Fed says. Crude oil is up over $99 per barrel today, while the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. stands at $3.87, according to the New York Mercantile Exchange and Fuel Gauge Report respectively.
In addition, food prices are off the charts, further crimping the budgets of savers and retirees. According to the IndexMundi Real Price Survey, the Commodity Price Index is up 13.35% -- well ahead of the rate of inflation.
Sure, low interest rates and a $40 billion-per-month cash infusion should help stabilize housing prices, and most bank savers and retirees do own homes. That could be a big net-plus for the U.S. economy.
But bank CEOs and stock market investors own homes, too, and they're not being asked to "take one for the team" as are savers and Americans living on a fixed-income.
In that regard, the playing field still seems tilted against middle-income Americans who count on the interest earned from certificates of deposits and money market accounts to help make it through the end of the month.
Like it or not, that's the reality bank savers face -- at least until 2015.
--By Brian O'Connell
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