Originally published by Maclean’s September 27th 2011. To go to the Maclean’s website please click here
Steven Patterson and his family moved to Vancouver from Cambridge, Ont., in mid-2008, just as the financial crisis hit. After years of scrimping and saving to pay off their first mortgage, they had earned a tidy profit when they sold the Cambridge house and put the proceeds into GICs, where the money would be safe and easily accessible should they decide to buy another home in B.C. Three years later, Patterson, a 42-year-old IT manager, is still sitting on the sidelines, renting, while real estate prices march ever upward in a city where a three-bedroom bungalow covered in warped siding can fetch $1 million.
That might seem like a prudent move in an uncertain economy, but Patterson says his cautious approach has come at a steep price: all his money is steadily being eaten away by inflation, which the meagre interest income from his GICs can’t cover—particularly after the taxman takes a cut. Meanwhile, several of Patterson’s friends have taken advantage of those same low interest rates, loaded up on debt, and bought into Vancouver’s frothy housing market in recent years. And they have enjoyed a windfall—at least on paper—as the value of their homes continues to climb. As for Patterson, “I’m only a few thousand dollars ahead—minus inflation,” he says, clearly frustrated. “So actually, I’m way behind, and I don’t have a house.”
Welcome to the world of ultra-low interest rates, where profligacy is richly rewarded and saving is, well, for suckers. Those who’ve opted to be austere with their personal finances have found themselves on the losing end as governments and central bankers have worked to get people to borrow and spend in the wake of the global recession. While emergency interest rate cuts were to be expected after the financial crisis seized up lending markets, it’s been nearly four years since central banks started slashing rates to the lowest levels in history. For that matter, over the last 10-year period, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bank of Canada’s benchmark interest rate stayed above four per cent for just six quarters (in 2006 and 2007), while the average headline rate of inflation over that time was 2.1 per cent.
As a result, those saving money have seen almost nothing in the way of returns for a painfully long time. In fact, after accounting for inflation, anyone who dares to be prudent risks seeing the value of their money decline. If one were to put $10,000 into a five-year GIC at two per cent this year, and assume headline inflation goes no higher than the current rate of 2.7 per cent, the future value of that investment in 2016 will have shrunk to around $9,670. (The consumer price index the Bank of Canada uses when setting interest rates is lower than the headline rate because it excludes volatile items like fuel and food, which is fine, if you don’t drive, or eat.)
For seniors and others living on fixed incomes in particular, low rates threaten to wipe out their savings. Yet it’s also depressing for those in the second half of their careers who don’t have an appetite for risk but feel they now have no other choice. “People in their 50s are worried about what they’re going to retire on,” says Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy at CARP, which works on behalf of aging Canadians. Between the carnage in stock markets and the collapse of interest rates, “there’s a huge amount of anxiety. You’re asking for a lot of trouble with this situation.”
Some will argue people like Patterson are simply bitter because they didn’t buy into Vancouver’s soaring housing market. And yes, those who take risks should enjoy the potential for greater rewards. That principle is at the heart of capitalism. Only, in the current environment where central banks have pushed down interest rates to abnormally low levels, and government policies encourage consumption over thrift, the dynamics of risk and reward have been severely distorted.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. From the moment children are given their first penny, it’s driven into us that saving is a virtue and the path to financial security starts with that ceramic piggy bank on the dresser. Only now, with policy-makers in a desperate race to reignite economic growth, all that has been turned on its head. Yes, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have repeatedly warned Canadians not to take on too much debt, but their policies, and those of their colleagues in countries like the United States and Great Britain, have had the opposite effect, encouraging people to buy homes, cars, flat-screen TVs or take a plunge into volatile stock markets—anything, that is, but save.
“We’ve got ourselves into a position where debt and spending seem to be highly valued, but saving, which is prudent and helps people plan for their futures, seems to be almost looked down upon,” says Simon Rose, who works with Save Our Savers, a British organization that’s taken up the fight for downtrodden penny counters. “It’s unfair that the problems of the economy should be disproportionately shouldered by savers rather than those with a tendency to borrow too much and get into trouble.” No one is saying Canadians should abandon thrift and go on a wild spree of gluttonous consumption. Indeed, Ottawa has set up tax-free savings accounts to encourage people to save. But the competing priority of spurring economic activity means the interests of savers have taken a back seat and made it that much harder to act responsibly. What’s more, while central bankers have undone basic thinking about saving in the name of juicing the economy, a growing chorus of critics claim that strategy has not only failed to turn things around, but the dogged pursuit of low rates might be weakening the recovery
Sometimes Lee Tunstall wonders why she bothers saving at all. A child of parents who grew up during the Second World War and instilled in her the importance of living within her means, Tunstall, a consultant in Calgary, has rented the same apartment for 17 years and dutifully contributes to her conservatively managed RSP account. Yet all around her, friends have piled on huge mortgages and run up towering lines of credit debts in the past few years to buy homes and new Bimmers for the driveway. “If you are a saver you’re absolutely losing money to inflation, and if you go into the markets you’re losing money there too, so why bother?” she says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Why don’t I just join the herd and do what everybody else is doing, buy the toys and live it up like everybody else?’ ”
Tunstall would have plenty of company were she to give up her frugal ways. Gone are the days when Canada was a nation of savers. In 1980, the personal saving rate peaked at above 20 per cent and was still around 13 per cent in 1995. Today it stands at just 4.1 per cent. At the same time, over the last decade Canadians have increasingly relied on debt to maintain their lifestyles. The average household now owes $151 for every $100 of disposable income, a higher level than even American households reached in 2007 as the air rushed out of the U.S. housing bubble. This week, Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, said it is increasingly uneasy with the consumer debt mountain rising in Canada. “We are concerned that Canadians are relying on low interest rates to support high debt levels,” the agency said in a statement.
Much of that growth in debt has taken place since 2007, when the Bank of Canada cut its overnight rate from 4.5 per cent to a low of 0.25 per cent in 2009. The dramatic cuts, along with stimulus programs targeted at the real estate sector, revived house prices, which had begun to tumble. As of June, the Teranet-National Bank House Price index has nearly doubled over the last decade, while in markets like Vancouver, prices have soared a whopping 140 per cent. That shouldn’t have been a surprise; reckless behaviour gets a boost when government and central bank policies punish individuals for not taking part. But while the cuts were a boon to mortgage borrowers, they’ve sideswiped the saving crowd.
One way to measure the impact is to look at how much interest income is being lost as a result of low rates. Stephen Johnston, a Calgary money manager, estimates that with roughly $1.2 trillion on deposit at the banks and rates roughly three percentage points below their historical average, savers are losing out on $30 billion to $40 billion every year in interest income. He argues this amounts to a massive subsidy for the country’s banks, since the rate depositors are paid to part with their money is far less than what the banks can earn lending that money out to other people as mortgages. “Deposit rates now cost the banks nothing, but that’s not free,” he says. “Someone else is paying the price, and it’s little old ladies and people on fixed incomes who can least afford it.”
As bad as the situation is here, it’s even worse in the U.K. Last month, figures from the Bank of England showed that since 2008, when the central bank slashed the interest rate to 0.5 per cent, savers there have lost out on $66 billion of interest income. What’s more, the bank estimates mortgage borrowers have benefited to the tune of $79 billion. Meanwhile in the U.S., where rates are virtually zero and the Federal Reserve recently vowed to hold them there until 2013, the suffering inflicted on the saving crowd is especially severe. In a recent analysis for the American Institute for Economic Research, William Ford, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, estimated American savers have seen anywhere from US$256 billion to US$587 billion in potential income vanish. “None of the supposedly favourable effects [of low interest rates] are actually happening, and instead it’s having a very strong negative impact on savers,” Ford told Maclean’s. “It’s killing savers. Retirees are getting negative returns on their life savings.”
With Canada’s overnight rate at an almost-princely one per cent compared to the U.S., savers have at least had that going for them. Unfortunately, Canada’s economy shrank by 0.4 per cent in the second quarter, reviving calls for more rate cuts. At the very least, Carney now says the need for a rate hike has been “diminished.”
But as policy-makers consider a fresh round of monetary easing, some in the U.S. are warning that low rates, and their punishing effect on savers, could be doing the economy more harm than good.
While the Bank of Canada’s interest rate policies have been credited with helping Canada quickly recover from the recession, in America unemployment is still stubbornly high while house prices have continued to fall. Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at the University of Chicago and the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, sees this as evidence that perpetually low rates—a long-established tool for repairing broken economies—are simply failing this time around. Instead, he believes an overlooked cause of the recovery’s sluggishness lies with America’s devastated savers.
Consider the example of China for why that is, says Rajan. For years, China has kept interest rates artificially low—well below the rate of inflation—partly to drive down its currency but also to make it easier for manufacturers and builders to access capital. That’s had the unforeseen consequence of sapping consumer spending, too, which has shrunk as a share of the economy from 50 per cent in the 1990s to just 35 per cent today. When Chinese families who are saving for their children’s education, or to take care of an elderly parent, see their savings eroded by low rates and inflation, they have responded by spending less and saving even more.
Rajan believes the same phenomena could be at work in America today. “Your traditional spenders are hesitant about splurging again, while low rates mean your savers are cutting back because their incomes are falling,” he says. “Giving savers a better deal by raising rates from abnormally low levels may help rather than hurt the economy.”
For its part, the Bank of Canada is in a difficult spot. If it leaves rates low indefinitely, there’s the very real risk more Canadians will decide saving is a suckers’ game and start to pile on debt. Yet when the bank eventually does raise rates, which it must, someday, over-indebted households could spark a fresh crisis. “Previous generations used to buy a house that was twice their household income, but now families are spending 10 to 12 times what they earn,” says David Trahair, a financial author whose new book, Crushing Debt: Why Canadians Should Drop Everything and Pay Off Debt, is due out in November. “The central banks are in a bind because they can’t increase interest rates or it will be extremely punitive to these people with mountains of variable rate debt.”
Whatever happens, Ritchie Hok, an actuary living in Ottawa, is convinced savers will ultimately wind up paying the price for others’ imprudence. At the peak of the U.S. housing bubble, Hok lived in Minneapolis and saw the excesses first-hand. While there he resisted those who urged him to get into the market; a wise move given prices are down 40 per cent there. Now that he’s in Ottawa, though, he’s hearing all the same arguments for why he should take advantage of low rates and buy a house before prices rise even further. He’s convinced Canada’s housing market is a bubble that will eventually burst, and when it does, policy-makers will rush to people’s rescue. “My fear is that most people in Canada are now debtors and not savers, and so governments will enact policies to help them because they make up most of the population,” he says. “Savers may get screwed on the way down, too.”
If Hok is right, the frugal few could be in for even more pain ahead. Why is it again that it pays to save?