Fed critics say the central bank's loose monetary policies are bad for savers. It’s a criticism the public has heard over and over again. For the past four years the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates near zero and has bought trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities and treasuries to give the economy a needed boost. Still, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee has accused Fed Chief Ben Bernanke of “throwing seniors under the bus.”
In his latest article, James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, argues that this criticism is wrong, or at least misguided. First off, Surowiecki argues, most Americans aren’t living off the interest from their savings. In fact only 7% of all financial assets in the U.S. are held in interest-bearing assets. Even senior citizens, the group of Americans that Bernanke is purportedly hurting, only receive 10% of their income from interest. The truth is, says Surowiecki, people who are living mostly from savings and interest from savings tend to be a small and elite group. More Americans are in debt than are savers, and low interest rates help those in debt.
“The needs of the many outweigh the few,” says Suroweicki. "These are very difficult times for the long-term unemployed of whom we have 4.6 million who have found it impossible to get jobs.”
Even if the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates, the outlook for savers wouldn’t be much brighter. Changing monetary policy quickly and drastically would raise interest rates but it would slow down the economy and perhaps even pull the U.S. back into recession. A slow economy would hurt savers who don’t live exclusively on interest payments, and even those who do would suffer. When the economy is robust so is output, leading to a higher return rate for investors; the opposite happens when the economy is weak. The real culprit to savers, says Surowiecki, is a weak economy, not the Fed.
“The truth is, even for savers it would be better if the economy was doing better,” Suroweicki tells The Daily Ticker. "In the short run it’s hard when the 10-year bond is at 1.7% but in the long run it would be better if unemployment were down to 5.5% rather than where it is right now.”
Finally, Suroweicki argues, the Fed may not even be responsible for low interest rates.
“It’s a mistake to blame the Fed entirely for low interest rates,” he says in the above video. "We’re actually in about a 30-year cycle in declining interest rates so real interest rates have actually been plummeting over time despite what the Fed is doing.”
Given all of this, Suroweicki believes the Fed is being too cautious and should actually increase its bond-buying program.
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