WASHINGTON Super-low interest rates havent done what they usually do after a recession. They havent ignited economic growth or revived the home market or persuaded consumers to spend freely again.
They have, though, caused misery for retirees and others who depend on interest income. Such income plummeted 27 percent from 2008 to last year.
Now, some economists worry that low rates might be hurting the economy itself defeating the purpose of the Federal Reserves low-rate policies. When savers earn less, they spend less. And spending by individuals drives about 70 percent of the U.S. economy.
Those concerns arise 2 years after the Fed pushed short-term rates to near zero, part of an effort to combat the gravest recession since the 1930s. Its kept rates there since.
The Fed is turning the faucet, and nothings coming out, says William Ford, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. I dont see any pluses on the plus side of the ledger But theyre ignoring the strong negative effect that theyre having. Theyre killing savers. Retirees are earning nothing on their life savings.
The Fed this month announced plans to keep short-term rates near zero through mid-2013 unless the economy improves. And in a speech today, Chairman Ben Bernanke will likely lay out options for lowering long-term rates even further below the current near-record lows.
One option is a third round of Treasury bond purchases by the Fed. Such purchases would be intended to nudge rates even lower, to encourage spending and borrowing and raise stock prices. But additional rate declines would likely also further drive down rates on savings vehicles.
Low rates have already hurt retirees and other savers. Savings accounts, on average, are yielding 0.15 percent, 1-year CDs 1.15 percent and even 5-year Treasury notes only 1 percent.
Americans total interest income dropped from $1.38 trillion in 2008 to $1.01 trillion in 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. That time span has coincided with a period in which the Fed kept its main interest-rate lever, the federal funds rate, at a record low of zero to 0.25 percent.Seniors suffer
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Julie Moscove, 69, has watched her monthly interest income drop from more than $2,000 a few years ago to perhaps $400 now.
Its ridiculous, says Moscove, whos semi-retired but still runs the Tattoo-A-Pet registry business. I cut coupons now.
Moscove has little appetite for risk after having been burned by stocks when the dot-com boom went bust a decade ago. So shes resigned to accepting negligible returns just to keep her money safe.
Pension funds are also being hurt. Largely because of low rates, the nations 100 biggest pension funds were $254 billion short of what they need to meet obligations to retirees at the end of July. That was up from a $186 billion shortfall in June, according to the consulting firm Milliman.
Low rates are a tool that Fed officials have long used to boost weak economies. In recessions past, when the Fed slashed rates, a drop in borrowing costs led companies to hire and expand.
It hasnt worked that way this time. This recession followed a devastating financial crisis that damaged the banking system and made lower interest rates less effective.