The Great Recession was “solved” by a number of rapid fire actions by Congress and the Executive Branch. They came together to fund stimulus bills and negotiate with massive banks. They found a way to save most people’s retirements, despite the corruption and chicanery of companies that caused the mess.
We were in a horrible bind. Most people’s entire wealth was wrapped up in real estate and investments, which were tanking. The bubble had popped. Previously, people with little credit and, sometimes, no down payments were able to buy homes. It inflated everything, as people were buying more than they could ever afford.
After the collapse, a lengthy program called for zero-interest borrowing and quantitative easing. The Federal Reserve (U.S. central bank) doled out massive amounts of money to banks at zero and near-zero interest. Effectively, this would enable banks to give borrowers easier access to mortgages, small business loans, and more. The hope was that banks would generously loan out the money.
Then came quantitative easing. Because the interest rates were already at zero, the Federal Reserve (central bank) couldn’t prop up the banks this way any more. They made a last ditch effort and started buying bonds (or, debt) of financial institutions (i.e., Bank of America, Chase, and Wells Fargo).
Every time there was speculation that the discount window to interest-free loans or quantitative easing would come to an end, the stock market would hiccup. Investments would nose dive and a panicked market pleaded with Federal Reserve chairs to hold back – the economy was still “soft.”
Economic stimulation of this sort allowed people to spend more, too. By acquiring low-interest debt, people could buy more, bigger, and better. Everything seemed more affordable when loans were artificially depressed (heck, that’s why I bought a car I couldn’t afford).
People with money bought and bought. And they invested like mad. Those who invested post-Great Recession were rewarded handsomely. From the bottom of the crash to now, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) has returned approximately 173%. In other words, investors who got in mid-2009 and 2010 have nearly doubled their money!
One of the saving graces of today’s economy is that inflation has held constant. Throughout 2014, the inflation rate ranged from 0.8 to 2.1% every month. And inflation is an important variable in this conversation, because it’s essentially a measure of affordability. When inflation increases, the consumer price of all goods increases. Everything from bread to cars to homes is affected by this measure.
Thus, in 2014 the average inflation rate was 1.77%. Not too shabby! When you compare that to deflationary or atmospheric inflation, we are in a pleasant sweet spot. The price of goods are increasing at a controlled, moderate rate.
For most of us, the stimulus has worked. My investments are doing better than ever and I’m seeing some sizable gains. The future of my money looks brighter.
Additionally, I have fewer “savings” than ever, and that’s a good thing because I have more invested than ever. I followed the financial advice of the world and realized that cash is a drag. I don’t mean that tongue-in-cheek. Cash suffocates returns, because checking and savings accounts pay next to nothing (even if you choose an online bank). To let cash sit in those accounts means that we accept a pittance and suffer from inflation rates.
Let me put this together. We have benefited from the Federal Reserve’s decision to provide easy capital to banks, which then presumably went to consumers. Similarly, quantitative easing has further supported banks recovery and ability to loan. Investments are spectacular right now, too. But this combination of events has wreaked havoc on the most desperate among us.
The advice for someone like me (who has some – albeit small – amounts of money) is to invest. Don’t suffer the cash drag. Unfortunately, that financial advice doesn’t apply to the poorest among us. Those with irregular and/or unknown paychecks by amount and/or interval can’t invest the money. By investing their funds, they could put themselves at risk because they don’t have enough liquidity. Additionally, they might not be able to invest because they barely have enough at the end of every month to scrape by.
That’s where the advice between wealthy and poor individuals diverges. Our financial commentators tell wealthy people to invest, and the impoverished to save. If only the poor would save more, their lives might be better. Except, if you’ve been following along, “saving money” doesn’t mean protecting money. The average interest rate of savings accounts was 0.06% in 2014. At Bank of America, Chase, PNC Bank, and Wells Fargo – all the brick and mortar banks that those in poverty are more likely to use – the interest rate is a dormant 0.01%.
Let’s say you’re Joe Poverty, trying to save. Mr. Poverty has turned on CNBC, Fox News, and CNN to listen to all the financial advice he can get his hands on. He’s motivated and leans in. He wants to live better, eat healthier, and save for the future. He wants to pay his daughter’s student loans, and he feels guilty that he couldn’t support her. His first step is to open a checking and savings account at a local, popular bank. He needs to be able to pay bills and receive paychecks, but he also wants to begin saving. The checking and savings accounts will pay him 0% and 0.01%, respectively.
Now, here’s where things get really sad. Joe Poverty is going to stay in poverty using this method. Unless he can drastically increase his income and build a huge safety net, he won’t have enough to invest each month. Because he’ll be precluded from investing, his only hope is to save. So he does. And he does. And he does. He’s motivated, remember? He cares about his daughter and wants to succeed.
He drops money here and there into the savings account. But each month that money is worth less and less. Despite his attempts to save at 0.01%, the inflation rate hovers around 1.77%. Effectively, he loses 1.76% every month in spending power. The savings are hibernating, as the world around those dollars is ablaze. The market is benefiting nearly every day from free-flowing capital, but the poorest have had to sit by and watch it happen. Every month, having less.
At some point, Joe Poverty feels like “he’s failing.” He turns on the channels, rereads books, and looks at his savings account. Despite his efforts, he can’t afford to pay off his daughter’s loans. Her loans accelerate at 6.8% interest, as his savings lingers.
This economy disincentivized savings. It trumped up how easy it is to spend and invest, while ignoring those most in need. Savings rates used to 3%, 4%, and 5% only a few years ago. They could easily beat the inflation rate, and incentivize savings. People really added to their wealth when they saved.
Even worse, by disincentivizing savings, those who might need positive reinforcement didn’t receive it. In fact, they were punished for saving. They had less and less each month. The savings were an illusion, and the purposelessness was degrading. Who wants to continue trying to save and add to their income – following the advice of wizened “gurus” – only to find out they’re failing?
The Great Recession hurt nearly everyone. The actions that the government took are debatable. The necessity of those actions are questionable. But the result is undeniable. People have been encouraged to spend free cash and invest for the long term. Neither are bad options in a low-rate environment. Sickeningly, that advice doesn’t apply to everyone.
People in poverty will continue to sit back and watch as others’ lucrative capital increase until something changes. We need the Federal Reserve and the government to incentivize savings like mad. We need an economy and country that’s prosperous for a greater whole, not a select few. The discount window for loans must raise their interest. The quantitative easing must stop. And the world must compromise investment performance for a short while – adjusting to the new rates – to encourage everyone to save.
It’s no longer enough to verbally smack and accost the most destitute without understanding the systemic factors that prevent their success. It’s time we advocate for respect and change these financial practices. Then, and only then, will the advice to “save” make cents.