Category: Federal Reserve

DIY Retirement

The Risks of Do-It-Yourself Retirement Plans

Do-It-Yourself Retirement Planning?

A report recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank on the economic well-being of U.S. households discusses what people have saved for retirement versus what they will actually need, commonly known as the “retirement gap.”  The survey found that only 47 percent of DIY investors were comfortable with handling their own 401(k)s, IRAs or other outside retirement accounts.

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Negative Interest Rates – Searching for Meaning

We have mentioned negative interest rates in the past.  Let’s take a look at what it means to you.

Central banks lower interest rates to encourage economic activity.  The theory is that low interest rates allow companies to borrow money at lower costs, encouraging them to expand, invest in and grow their business.  It also encourages consumers to borrow money for things like new homes, cars, furniture and all the other things for which people borrow money.

It’s the reason the Federal Reserve has lowered rates to practically zero and kept them there for years.  It’s also why the Fed has not raised rates; they’re afraid that doing so will reduce the current slow rate of growth even more.

But if low rates are good for the economy, would negative interest rates be even better?  Some governments seem to think so.

Negative interest rates in Japan mean that if you buy a Japanese government bond due in 10 years you will lose 0.275% per year.  If you buy a 10 year German government bond today  your interest rate is negative 0.16%.   Why would you lend your money to someone if they guaranteed you that you would get less than the full amount back?  Good question.  Perhaps the answer is that you have little choice or are even more afraid of the alternative.

Per the Wall Street Journal:

There is now $13 trillion of global negative-yielding debt, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That compares with $11 trillion before the
Brexit vote, and barely none with a negative yield in mid-2014.
In Switzerland, government bonds through the longest maturity, a bond due in nearly half a century, are now yielding below zero. Nearly 80% of Japanese and German government bonds have negative yields, according to Citigroup.

This leaves investors are searching the world for securities that have a positive yield.  That includes stocks that pay dividends and bonds like U.S. Treasuries that still have a positive yield: currently 1.4% for ten years.  However, the search for yield also leads investors to more risky investments like emerging market debt and junk bonds.  The effect is that all of these alternatives are being bid up in price, which has the effect of reducing their yield.

The yield on Lithuania’s 10-year government debt has more than halved this year to around 0.5%, according to Tradeweb. The yield on Taiwan’s 10-year bonds has fallen to about 0.7% from about 1% this year, according to Thomson Reuters.
Elsewhere in the developed world, New Zealand’s 10-year-bond yields have fallen to about 2.3% from 3.6% as investors cast their nets across the globe.
Rashique Rahman, head of emerging markets at Invesco, said his firm has been getting consistent inflows from institutional clients in Western Europe and Asia interested in buying investment-grade emerging-market debt to “mimic the yield they used to get” from their home markets.
Clients don’t care if it is Mexico or Poland or South Korea, he said, “they just want a higher yield.” ….
Ricky Liu, a high-yield-bond portfolio manager at HSBC Global Asset Management, said his firm has clients from Asia who are willing for the first time to invest in portfolios that include the highest-rated junk bonds.

How and where this will end is anybody’s guess.  In our view, negative interest rates are an indication that central bankers are wandering into uncharted territory.  We’re not convinced that they really know how things will turn out.  We remain cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy and are staying the course, but we are not chasing yield.

A Client Asks: What’s the Benefit of Inflation?

One of our retired clients sent us the following question recently:

“I can’t understand the FED condoning and promoting any inflation rate. To me inflation means that the value of money is simply depreciating at the inflation rate. Further, any investment paying less than the inflation rate is losing money. A quick review of CD rates and government bonds show it is a rare one that even approaches the promoted 2.25% rate. It seems to me to be a de-facto admission of wanting to screw conservative investors and forcing them into riskier investments… Where is there any benefit to the financial well-being of the ordinary citizens?”

I suspect that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. It’s a good question. Who wants ever rising prices?

Here’s how I addressed his question:

Let me answer your inflation question first. My personal opinion is that 0% inflation is ideal, and I suspect that you agree. However, lots of people see “modest” rates of inflation (say 2%) as healthy because it indicates a growing economy. Here’s a quote from an article you may want to read:

Rising prices reflect a growing economy. Prices typically rise for one of two reasons: either there’s a sudden shortage of supply, or demand goes up. Supply shocks—like a disruption in the flow of oil from Libya—are usually bad news, because prices rise with no corresponding increase in economic activity. That’s like a tax that takes money out of people’s pockets without providing any benefit in return. But when prices rise because demand increases, that means consumers are spending more money, economic activity is picking up, and hiring is likely to increase.

A case can be made that in a dynamic economy you can never get perfect stability (e.g. perfectly stable prices), so it’s better for there to be more demand than supply – driving prices up – rather than less demand than supply – causing prices to fall (deflation). Of course we have to realize that “prices” here includes the price of labor as well as goods and services. That’s why people can command raises in a growing economy – because employers have to bid up for a limited supply of labor. On the other hand, wages grow stagnant or even decline when there are more workers available than jobs available.

But for retirees on a fixed income, inflation is mostly a negative. Your pension is fixed. Social Security is indexed for inflation, but those “official” inflation numbers don’t take food and fuel costs into consideration, and those tend to go up faster than the “official” rate. The stock market also benefits from modest inflation.

Which gets us to the Federal Reserve, which has kept interest rates near zero for quite a while. It’s doing this to encourage business borrowing, which in turn is supposed to lead to economic expansion.  However, the actual effect has been muted because other government policies have been detrimental to private enterprise. In effect you have seen the results of two government policies in conflict. It’s really a testimony to the resilience of private industry that the economy is doing as well as it is.

The effect on conservative investors (the ones who prefer CDs or government bonds to stocks) has been negative. It’s absolutely true that after inflation and taxes the saver is losing purchasing power in today’s low interest rate environment. The FED is not doing this to intentionally hurt conservative investors, but that’s been part of the collateral damage. The artificially low rates will not last forever and the Fed has indicated they want to raise rates. They key question is when, and by how much?

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