Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why American Savers Have Drawn the Short Straw

Why American Savers Have Drawn the Short Straw

American savers, take a bow. This is your moment of vindication. Your hour of glory. And you earned it (in a manner of speaking).

You resisted the siren call of plastic teaser APRs, dutifully living within your means to store money for a rainy day. You never took out an interest-only mortgage. Never had to pawn the copper pipes from your exurban McMansion to pay the reset on your liar loan. Your credit score would have gotten you into Harvard at age 12.

Good for you! Your reward: injurious savings yields, inflationary rot, and election-season neglect, all served up with a dollop of institutional insecurity.

Even with a current account deficit that, starved of domestic savings, requires $2 billion a day in foreign financing, economic policymakers are fixated on propping up credit and giving the participants in the housing bubble second chances. In order to do so, they are stripping the hides off of net savers.

Since August of last year, the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates from 5.25% to 2.00%—wielding a blunt instrument that was swung enough to bend the yield curve in favor of suffering banks. You know, the institutions that screwed up but were too big and important to be deprived of an inalienable right to cheap deposits that they can loan out at several points higher.

Indeed, a year ago, a six-month certificate of deposit earned, on average, 3.53%, according to (RATE). Today, that's down to 2.03%. A one-year CD that earned 3.75% at this point in 2007 was offered for as little as 1.92% in April, before inching up to its present 2.38%. It's hardly a secret that banks are only able to pay out such pittances thanks to depositors' knee-jerk desire for security: "Hey, I might be earning crumbs on my cash, but at least I'm not losing money."

Sure you are. Wholesale inflation has soared 9.8% in the past 12 months, the highest clip since 1981. The more widely cited consumer price index jumped to 5.6%. In other words, while your saved buck was adding 2 cents or so on one end (and even less after taxes), three times as much was getting singed off the other end of that dollar bill. "Inflation is just deadly to savings," says David Gitlitz, chief economist at TrendMacrolytics, an investment adviser. Gitlitz observes that, taking into account the hit from inflation, rates haven't been this negative since the dreary 1970s. (That, in turn, gave way to an early '80s that saw the worst inflation in U.S. history since the Civil War.) "It steals your purchasing power and sets less and less of an incentive to keep money in the bank."

You're telling me. My trusty Manhattan pizza guy recently hiked the cost of a slice for the second time in the past year, from $2 to $2.50 to $3. "Why you mad?" he blurted, pounding a ball of dough. "Prices are nuts; you can't even buy a glass of milk no more." ("We're paying 128% more for a bag of flour," added his grandson-apprentice, with startling accuracy.) Even my barber justified taking up the cost of a standard trim and buzz by 20%. "Fuel surcharge," he deadpanned in his Uzbeki accent. (As it turns out, he rides the subway.)

In a perfect world, the Fed's rate-cutting campaign would have shored up real estate and the stock market. Instead, investors have been running for inflationary cover in hard assets like crude oil, gold, and even fertilizer. Oil, we all know, went from $70 to more than $140 in one year flat, sending gasoline and utility costs soaring and counteracting the lift from monetary and fiscal stimulus. Still comforted by that 2% savings yield? (Your mattress and piggy bank are in stitches.)

Commodity inflation has also been exacerbated by concurrent weakness in the dollar, which is stuck between a Europe that is loath to cut interest rates and a Washington that is too scared to hike them. Even with its recent rally, the greenback is only worth two-thirds of a euro. You practically have to wheelbarrow dollars to places like Madrid and Berlin.

All of which might be tolerable to the lonely and beleaguered saver if he weren't taunted daily by lopsidedly pro-spending, pro-creditor news stories. Forget about moral hazard. Forget about rewarding profligacy. Washington is hell bent on putting a floor beneath the housing market. And subtlety got vetoed out of the process. Consider some recent news reports:

"President Bush Signs $300 Billion Housing Rescue Bill" (AP)—increasing to $625,500 from $417,000 the size of home loans in high-cost areas that Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE) are allowed to buy.

The number of Chapter 7 filings—designed to give individual debtors a "fresh start" by discharging many of their debts—recently rose by 36% (

"The FDIC may lower mortgage rates for delinquent IndyMac borrowers after suspending foreclosures..." (Bloomberg).

Maybe savers' ultimate vindication will arrive when and if every asset is so deflated, credit is so choked off, and misery is so prevalent that only those with cold hard cash can lob in lowball offers for homes, cars, and everything else. Assuming, of course, they didn't stash all their money in one of the many banks that is about to go under; the feds are closely watching 117 of them—and counting. The phone lines have never been so jammed with nervous clients.

Oh, the joys of saving.

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