Markets Pricing In More Pain for Savers

May 19, 2020

Markets Pricing In More Pain for Savers Photo

The Federal Reserve’s (Fed) unprecedented efforts to ease the economic hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic included a rapid return of short-term interest rates back to zero and trillions of additional balance sheet purchases. The financial market reaction to the return of easy money since stock prices bottomed in late March has been nothing short of amazing. The S&P 500 Index is up more than 30% from its March lows and the NASDAQ Composite Index is now up for the year. In likely the most extreme example of bad news for the economy being good news for markets, equity prices rose following the release of April employment data that showed the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression.

Despite investments out the risk curve benefiting from the return of Fed stimulus, zero-interest rates are again creating pain for investors focused on capital preservation and safe sources of income. All forms of cash holdings, including money market funds, bank savings accounts and certificates of deposit, are offering less during a time when the pandemic has created extreme economic uncertainty and record-high market volatility — a period when cash is a more essential asset for most households.

When questioned about the harm zero rates have on savers during the April Federal Open Market Committee press conference, Fed Chair Jerome Powell emphasized the need for supporting the overall economy as opposed to worrying about what is good for every single person. The scales have tipped toward borrowers at the expense of savers since the 2008/2009 financial crisis, with short-term interest set below the inflation rate for all but a brief period in late 2018/early 2019.

The outlook for savers is unlikely to improve anytime soon, in a world where the pandemic has meant almost any leverage is too much for every type of borrower from municipalities to mortgage REITs. Fixed income markets are currently pricing in zero-interest short-term rates for the remainder of this year and moving slightly into negative territory next year, despite Fed Chair Powell dismissing the benefits of negative rates. I do not expect Fed interest-rate policy to cross its historical zero lower bound, but without a medical solution helping to ease the suffering and anxiety from the coronavirus, liftoff from the zero level is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Tags: Federal Reserve | Coronavirus | Interest Rates | S&P 500 | NASDAQ | Jerome Powell

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