Almost no one in the U.S has enough retirement savings, the New York Times warned us on Sunday, "not even people who have put away $1 million." There are a couple of reasons for this. First, people aren't putting aside enough during their working years, a problem since at least the early 1980s. And the recent decline in real interest rates means that those meager savings aren't going as far as they used to.
Consider this bleak picture: A typical 65-year-old couple with $1 million in tax-free municipal bonds wants to retire. They plan to withdraw 4 percent of their savings a year — a common, rule-of-thumb drawdown. But under current conditions, if they spend that $40,000 a year, adjusted for inflation, there is a 72 percent probability that they will run through their bond portfolio before they die.
Social Security and Medicare can help offset these shortfalls, especially for the vast majority of Americans who have far fewer savings than the Times's hypothetical couple. Those programs can keep people out of penury but won't ensure a comfortable standard of living for most of us. The conclusion I got from reading the article is that most U.S. households need to start saving as much as possible as soon as possible.
Yet this conclusion stands in direct contradiction to what many economists have been (counterintuitively) arguing since the global downturn began in 2007. According to them, the economy's weakness can be attributed to excessive saving by households and businesses. In response, these economists recommend that governments push their citizens to save less. The best-known formulation of this view probably comes from former Treasury secretary Larry Summers:
The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more lending and more spending.
Summers's phrasing is catchy but vague. He believes, as I do, that the retrenchment of the private sector should be accommodated by heightened public borrowing. That stabilizes the total amount of spending in the economy while making it easier for people to accomplish their savings objectives.
Some economists, however, think that households and businesses should be pushed to borrow and spend with as much abandon as they did during the go-go years. Nayarana Kocherlakota, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has been the leading intellectual advocate of this position. He has repeatedly argued that the Fed must lean against U.S. households' newfound desire to save by keeping interest rates "unusually low" for many years.
Low rates could be helpful if they encourage foreigners to sell U.S. financial assets. That would make goods and services denominated in dollars relatively more competitive in international markets. In theory, this would increase the incomes of many Americans without requiring anyone to do anything unwise. However, no amount of monetary easing has managed to accomplish this so far. The dollar is actually less competitive against a trade-weighted basket of foreign currencies than it was before crisis. In practice, therefore, the Fed's low rates seem aimed principally at U.S. households and businesses.
According to Kocherlakota and others who share his basic view, there is always a set of interest rates that produces acceptable rates of unemployment and inflation. The level of these "equilibrium" interest rates is affected by people's savings preferences and by the relative supply of "safe" places to put your money.
During the crisis, it became apparent that many assets previously considered "safe" were actually quite risky, including subprime mortgage bonds and Greek sovereign debt. At the same time, people who had been conned by the promises of the so-called "Great Moderation" into saving too little and putting too much of their savings into risky assets realized that they needed more insurance against the unexpected.
Together, these forces have pushed down "equilibrium" real interest rates. That's why people like Kocherlakota have argued that the Fed needs to remain "accommodative" for a very long time. I'm skeptical of this approach, especially given the available alternatives such as broad-based tax cuts. Regardless of which side you are on, the contradiction between the personal finance experts and the central bankers suggests that the Fed will fight an uphill battle for a very long time.