Saturday, October 13, 2012

Basic Economics: Savings Accounts



Looking at the modern relationships between interest rates, taxes, and price inflation, I have wondered why anyone would put money into savings accounts or buy bonds, especially U.S. government bonds. A savings account, earning 1.6% (The top rate offered by my credit union recently.), after taxes of say 20% and price inflation of 2% gives you a guaranteed annual loss of 0.72%! The situation for bonds isn’t that much better, if at all. For someone with a higher income, with higher tax rates, the loss is substantially greater .

On the other hand, I know that savings accounts have historically been the primary savings vehicle in the U.S. I know from 100 Voices that Ayn Rand held her money from the sales of her novels in savings accounts. What is the difference between then, even as late as the 1970s and the 1990s, which is when I first realized the problem.

In thinking about this issue, one of the first things I saw is that interest rates have been declining as a trend since the spike in 1990. At that time I had a mortgage at 10.75%. The decline in interest rates since then has been the consequence of the Fed’s view that below market interest rates on loans encourages consumption and business activity and that if they don’t have the economic activity that they want, they decide they should lower rates more. Each round of recession and boom and financial crisis over the last twenty plus years has seen the Fed pushing short-term interest rates lower and lower. Today, the short-term rates are about as low as then can go. The rate the Fed controls directly, the rate it charges banks to borrow overnight funds for their Fed “reserves” (deposits) is zero to 0.25%. (Some recent auctions of German government short-term bonds have seen negative interest rates.) And, for the third time since 2009, they are trying to lower medium and long-term rates with “quantitative easing.”

So, first, the problem I am seeing is a very recent event. What are some of the consequences?

First there is the complete disassociation of savings and capital. The creation and use of capital is a vitally important activity in an economy. The creation and use of capital causes prosperity, not to mention the survival of our population. A population as large as ours cannot survive (or occur) without industrialization. Just to maintain industrialization requires capital. Economies either grow or contract. There is no equilibrium.

Over the last twenty years the number of households that have ownership in corporations, i.e., own stocks, has gone up significantly. One major reason is that people recognize that they have to have a more rapid growth in their retirement savings than can be provided by bank savings accounts. The need is two fold. With taxes and other restraints on creating wealth, they are not able to save enough. And then, price inflation has a double impact in that not only will it make the process of saving enough difficult, but it will also make the amount the retiree needs to live increase significantly and unpredictably. Even a 2% price inflation rate is a danger. That means that in just twenty years, a retiree would need 25% more cash for the same standard of living. Since many retirees live longer than that in retirement, and the percentage of people with such long lives is growing, the impact of even small amounts of price inflation is significant and ignored by the government planners. Bernanke has recently remarked that the effect of the Fed’s goal of 2% price inflation on retirees is unimportant in policy decisions.

You might think that a higher percentage of stockownerships is good for the economy. I’m not so sure. I was, but my view is changing. There is a difference between creating capital and owning existing capital. Saving and putting your money directly into a new or growing business is creating capital. Buying a stock from another owner is not.

Consider what should happen when you put your money into a bank savings account. (I am going to ignore the consumer loans and the loans to business for normal business activities.) Businesses come to banks for the purpose of borrowing money to start a new business or grow their existing company. This is the direct application of capital, i.e., new productive activity. Here we also see the division of labor at work. The person who saved the capital is engaged in his own profession or job and by saving, he is putting money into the hands of the banker whose profession is apprising risk and opportunity in expanding production. Then there are the businessmen who compete for funds by presenting their plans and expectations of profit.

The normal person does not have the expertise to appraise business opportunities. (Although in a rational culture he would have a better understand of the reality of business activity than people do today.) This is true in the case where people already know something about the industry. Some financial writers have advised investors to place their money in industries in which they are familiar. It isn’t a bad idea, but it does not address the additional need to be able to appraise the financial, managerial, and competitive strength of a company. Correctly understanding the context for investing is difficult enough for the professional, especially in today’s complex economy. For those who do not have the relevant education, experience or time, the prospects are very poor. No wonder everyone is so hopped up on the gambling metaphor for investing.

The need for non-professional investors to put their savings into asset markets is part of the make-up of the two recent booms: tech stocks and residential real estate. Without the amateur investor, both booms would have been less dramatic. Note that many of these investors lost lots of money, right along side the so-called professionals. This is over and above the normal losses that the non-professional investor tends to lose in the normal course of events. Some professionals use the activity of the individual investor as a contra indicator. If individual investors are buying, the reasoning goes, it is time to sell. Every study that I have seen clearly concludes that the non-professional consistently looses money investing in asset markets.

Then, over the last twelve years, as I have indicated in a previous post, the equity markets have failed to bring positive returns. Comparing equal dollars of purchasing power, today’s Dow (without including dividends or taxes) is 20% to 25% below the level at the end of the tech stock boom.

In fact, the only asset class that has shown consistent positive returns in the last decade is long-term bonds. But that brings us back to the beginning point, the Fed’s push to lower interest rates, because the reason long-term bonds have shown a gain is that interest rates keep falling. When interest rates begin to go up, watch out. Look at the returns of the bondholders of Greece, Spain, and Italy. When the interest rates on these dead bonds moved from less than 3% to near 6% or more, bond holders lost about 50% of their capital on the secondary market. To me, even 6% or 7% doesn’t seem very high when I wonder if the bonds will be repaid, or repaid with money worth anything.

There are surely lots of other consequences of the Fed’s disastrous decisions. Many are clearly visible, including the continued recession we are suffering through. (Officially the recession ended, but the psychology is still that of a recession, the unemployment level is that of a recession, and the government is doing all it can to keep us there, just like it did in the 1930s.) But the consequences that I have discussed are the ones I have recently added to my list.

But then there is the important question: Is the use of savings accounts by people who aren’t financial professionals a good thing in a laissez-faire economy and how?

The first thing to realize is that in a laissez-faire economy prices and wages tend to fall over time, which is the consequence of having a money immune from government manipulation. Prices fall faster than wages so that there is a continuous raise in the standard of living. That means that the dollar you place in a savings account will have a greater purchasing power over time even without consideration of interest paid.

The second important issue is the level of what is called the ordinary interest rate. That is the amount of return required for a person to delay consumption. This interest rate does not include consideration of risk, etc. I have seen suggestions that the rate of ordinary interest tends to be around 1%. That is, the normal person would be willing to put off spending $100 if in one year they had $101, assuming a laissez-faire economy. Other issues, such as the supply of physical capital (one market where supply does play a role in price) and risk factors, increase the interest rate within different market contexts.

So, if a savings account offered 2% interest, it was a great deal. The same is true for bonds issued by businesses. Saving for retirement would require much less of a struggle, later medical bills would be less of a problem, and our standard of living would continue to raise and we could have the flying car (see, my avatar means something – what we have lost due to government interference!).

Then, money placed into savings accounts was then loaned by banks to businesses who were credit worthy and had the best available plans for additional profits. Savings, that is capital, was accumulated and placed in the service of wealth creation, capitalism. That is basic banking.

I think much of the concern and fuss over fractional banking is based upon the view that banks are warehouses rather than institutions involved in the accumulation of capital. In the modern world, even ignoring the stupid, forced level of interest rates required by welfare state banking theory, savings have been diverted from banks and their major source of funds are demand deposits.

While unused demand deposits, and the goods represented by that money, are a kind of unintentional savings, real savings involves conscious decision and results in the funds being placed accordingly. When real savings is placed into profitable enterprise, and market rates of interest paid, investing and profit making activity would actually be a less risky activity.

With the manipulation of the money supply, the extensive regulation of the financial community, and the control of interest rates, none of the prices for savings or the factors of production reflect any part of the reality of business activity, market opportunities, or costs (not to mention political pull). Who knows what can or will happen when no facts are available for reason to evaluate.

So my conclusion is that in a laissez-faire economy, placing your money in savings accounts and buying bonds (of businesses) is a sane and personally beneficial decision.

In our economy, the government has pretty much taken way sane and beneficial opportunities. If you accept the idea that one should know what one is doing, then probably 90% of the investing public is acting irrationally. They do not understand the world as it currently functions, including the existing markets and the impact of government regulations and manipulations. Yes, I think that is true of many of my readers. Sorry.

5 comments:

  1. I have to wonder : "Why's the AARP silent on low interest rates?"

    My guess is that voters do not see their lower interest rates coming from government, but from the banks.

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    1. I have no idea why the AARP does anything. They are silent on just about everything that the government is doing that is adversely affecting the retired, the potentially retired, all sentient life. Why do they accept any level of inflation?

      I am sure that they hold the same economic theories that Bernanke and the Treasury does, which means that lowered interest rates will stimulate growth. Of course, growth would be good. The AARP also views itself as a major pressure group and thinks that it has gotten what it wants on major issues like Medicare. It isn't going to complain about something that seems minor. Remember also, none of the people running AARP are themselves retired or living on fixed incomes. It isn't really personal to them.

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  2. What mechanism causes both prices AND wages to tend to decrease over time in a laissez-faire economy? Doesn't increases in overall capital investment and efficiency (which is what makes lower prices possible and then factual) tend to lead, long-term, to increasing wage rates?

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    1. Jennifer, thank you for your question. This particular issue is one of the important specific points need to be communicated to people for them to understand the difference between capitalism and the regulated economy. Understandably, when a person’s income goes up they feel good. It is taken as a sign of prosperity, and when it a raise or promotion, it is an indication that the person is valued and that reality rewards virtue. More money is better than less.

      On the other hand, when prices go up, especially when the level of all prices raises, and the trend is constantly upwards, people understand that something is wrong. They don’t like it. Higher prices are undesirable and even destructive.

      However, generally raising prices and generally raising incomes are in fact the same thing, both caused by the manipulation, i.e., the constant expansion, of the money supply. Neither prices nor wages can constantly expand without an ever-larger quantity of money in circulation.

      When we look at just a price, or group of prices, or an income, or everyone’s income in isolation, we actually learn nothing. What really matters is the relation between prices and wages, and over time, which is changing the most in which direction. Economists call the result real wages or real incomes, that is, the amount of goods a specific wage will purchase. This is also called the standard of living.

      When you referred to investment and efficiency, you were heading to the core of the matter. What determines our standard of living is our productivity. Increasing productivity leads to higher standards of living. Increasing productivity requires brain power and capital, investment (which requires capitalism and freedom).

      I am not going into the entire discussion here, but inflating the money supply tends to reduce capital, is done within an environment of regulation, and hence toward slower increases in productivity or reductions in productivity. Stable money supplies allow for markets to function solely on the actual conditions of capital availability, competition, and demand.

      In capitalism, with a stable money supply, prices fall because of increased productivity and lower costs. Ultimately, all costs are wages, incomes of employees. The one factor that mandates wages to fall is the expansion of the population. In capitalism, especially during the early stages, the population expands rapidly. If the rest of the world is not capitalistic, the population will expand much more rapidly, as will production and productivity, causing prices to fall more rapidly, and wages, too. In capitalism, productivity has increased much more rapidly that the population, and thus real wages, and our standard of living.

      The addition of one word to your question is actually the solution: “real.” Nominal wages, money wages fall. Real wages, what you can buy, your standard of living, raise. In capitalism, real wages can go up quite rapidly. What fun!

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    2. Ah, okay, when I saw you talking about prices *and* wages I erroneously assumed that you meant "real" wages tend to fall under capitalism, which I know isn't true.

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