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The investing golden age may be over: Robert Shiller

The American economy is changing and we may be overcompensating. That’s one takeaway from Yahoo Finance’s latest discussion with Nobel Prize winning economist, and Yale University professor, Robert Shiller.

In the latest edition of his book, “Irrational Exuberance,” Shiller explains that people may need to move away from the thought that the economy will go back to how it was pre-crisis. “A lot of people are holding on to old facts, old presumptions,” he said.

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That has a big impact in how we spend and how we save. It also impacts how we work. “People today are afraid of new technology. They don’t know where it’s going. Computers are replacing jobs all over the place – where will we be in 30, 50 or 100 years?” he said. The end result of this is that people are less willing to take risks at work, thinking instead that if they take bland, less specialized jobs, they’re less likely to be replaced.

“One approach is, ‘I’m going to take the blandest most general career because I’m afraid. I’m not going to build up my human capital because it might be obsolete.’” Shiller said. “That is maybe a rational response to the situation but I think it leaves the economy in a bad state.”

When people think like this they end up in business school trying to get a job in management, since people assume no one will fire managers. “We have too many MBAs. And I teach MBAs somewhat,” said Shiller. “They’ll always need managers, but it’s not good. I think people need to be more risk takers in their careers for the good of society,” he added.

One area where Shiller doesn’t think people should be taking risks is with savings. He says one big misconception in America is that we should all be saving 5% of our incomes. The reason? Interest rates are near zero so yields on treasuries are essentially zero. On the equity side, Shiller doesn’t believe conventional wisdom that the stock market returns 10% a year still holds true. “This is not the golden age for investing and we shouldn’t assume that it’s going to be as it always was,” he said. Plus American stocks may be expensive buys for the average investor.

Related: Why Robert Shiller likes Europe more than the U.S.

So going with the idea that our investment assumptions are no longer true, many Americans are essentially saving 5% a year for 40 years and not necessarily earning any return. Add to that the fact that improvements in medicine have us living much longer post-retirment and it’s feasible that we may be living another 40 on just the principle of our savings. That means we're going to be living on 5% of our current income in retirement. Not good.

“The first solution for an individual is to save more,” said Shiller. In fact, he advises his students to continue living like students even after they’ve entered the real world in order to get used to a high rate of savings. But he knows that that’s not always practical, nor is it good for the economy: “That’s advice which I give to individuals thinking that they aren’t going to take it. If everybody saved more, then we’d have a problem.”

Shiller is referring to the idea that if everyone saved more, they wouldn’t be spending money on discretionary items and the U.S. economy is heavily dependent on consumer spending.

The personal savings rate in this country is hovering below 5% and it has never been more important for Americans to save for retirement. Fewer than 20% of American firms are now offering defined benefit and retirement plans for employees, no wonder some estimates say we’re $7 trillion short of the savings we need to retire.

So Shiller’s advice is to save more… but he knows you probably won’t listen to that advice.

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