The Victims Of Low-Interest LocustsAugust 13th, 2012 11:45 am David Cay Johnston
Another financial crisis looms for U.S. taxpayers, a disaster likely to create even worse human misery than the mortgage fiasco that some of us warned about years before the Wall Street meltdown in 2008.
The crisis next time: collapsing investment incomes for older Americans as artificially reduced interest rates force them to use up their savings and drive more pension plans into failure.
Eviscerating the interest income of savers is the undeniable result of a long-running Federal Reserve policy to reduce interest rates, especially since December 2008. The Fed reiterated on Aug. 1 that it plans to keep interest rates low through late 2014. It says this helps to promote stronger economic growth and bring down the jobless rate.
As in the mortgage crisis, you can see this disaster building by examining the official data.
At the broadest level, 53 percent of taxpayers earned interest in 2000. But by 2010 just 39 percent did, my analysis of Internal Revenue Service data shows, while high-interest debt has become ubiquitous.
From 2000 to 2010 total interest earned by savers fell 53 percent in real terms, a decline of $134 billion. Average interest earned per taxpayer, measured in 2010 dollars, plummeted from $1,950 to $825.
A drop of $1,125 per taxpayer may not seem like much, especially since the average income reported on 2010 tax returns was more than $56,000. But look at who relies on interest to make ends meet and the problem comes into focus.
Americans overall received just 1.5 percent of their income from interest payments in 2010. But among those with tiny incomes – the 37 million taxpayers making less than $15,000 – interest accounted for 9.3 percent of their money.
More than three-fourths of these low-income Americans reported no interest income. This means that the minority who saved relied heavily on the interest their savings earned. IRS and other government data show that minority consists mostly of older Americans who saved during their working years, prudently spending less than they earned so they could avoid poverty in their golden years.
The low interest rates paid on savings and bonds are not the result of market forces, but official policy. As readers here know, I favor competitive markets to set most prices, including interest rates.
The Fed has been suppressing interest rates for more than a decade – a major factor in the housing bubble that began in the mid-1990s. The bubble was obvious in official data by 2002 as housing prices grew much faster than incomes, a trend that could not be sustained. But those of us who pointed this out were ignored. Alan Greenspan famously claims no one saw it coming, which is true if you suffer willful blindness.