The Fed in Handcuffs

The Fed in Handcuffs

Low interest rates have been a boon to homeowners but a disaster for retirees. Something's got to give.

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“Trends” by George Feiger, in The Milken Institute Review (Third Quarter, 2003), 1250 Fourth St., 2nd fl., Santa Monica, Calif. 90401–1353.

You’ve just retired, and you think you’re sitting pretty with a cool million in the bank. Then you look around at today’s interest rates on certificates of deposit and medium-term bonds and realize that your stash is only going to yield between $10,000 and $30,000 in annual income. Then you get mad.

That’s going to happen more and more often in the years ahead, and it’s going to have serious effects on U.S. economic policy, predicts Feiger, a senior adviser at Monitor Group, a financial services and consulting firm. The historically low interest rates of the past three years have kept the economy afloat, but they’ve been “an unmitigated disaster” for many retirees, especially the more affluent ones.

Feiger foresees several future effects of low interest rates. Americans will need to save more, so government will find ways to mandate more saving by individuals, and both Washington and the private employers who oversee 401(k) and other private savings plans will channel savers into low-risk and low-cost investments. The high-flying wealth management industry will shrink. As savings rise, consumption will fall, at least for a time.

More significantly, says Feiger, “baby boom retirees won’t take anemic returns lying down.” In years ahead, they will make it politically difficult for the Federal Reserve to pursue the low-interest policy that prevails today.

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