MONEY bonds

Why Does Grandma Still Buy EE Savings Bonds?

Grandparents hugging kid leaving for college
David Burch—Getty Images

This popular investment pays much lower interest than people think and probably won't return much in time for college.

Last month I made a presentation to a bunch of high school students on the importance of basic financial planning skills. I had hopes of starting a conversation about saving for large purchases such a college education or a car. But the students were surprisingly interested in learning about EE savings bonds — those gifts that grandparents and other relatives give children to commemorate life events such as a birthday, first communion, or a Bar Mitzvah.

One student said he had savings bonds that were worth over $2,000. On special occasions, he said, his grandparents would give him a $50 EE savings bond. They told him that in eight years it would be worth $100 and then it would continue to double in value every eight years thereafter.

The Truth About Savings Bonds

Savings bonds that double in value every seven or eight years, however, have gone the way of encyclopedia salesmen, eight-track tapes, and rotary telephones. EE bonds sold from May 1, 2014 to October 31, 2014 will earn an interest rate of 0.50%, according to the US Treasury website. It’s not surprising that these interest rates are so low; what is surprising is that people are still buying these securities based on very old information.

You can buy EE savings bonds through banks and other financial institutions, or through the US Treasury’s TreasuryDirect website. The bonds, which are now issued in electronic form, are sold at half the face value; for instance, you pay $50 for a $100 bond. The interest rate at the time of purchase dictates when a bond will reach its face value.

This rate is detemined by discounting it against the 10 year Treasury Note rate, currently about 2.2%.

Years ago, you could calculate when your bond would reach face value by using a simple mathematical formula called the Rule of 72. If you simply divide an interest rate by 72 you can determine the number of years it will take for something to double in value. So, let’s try it. 72 divided by 0.5% = 144 years. Ouch!!

Fortunately, the Treasury has made a promise to double your investment in a EE savings bond in no less than 20 years. Actually it’s a balloon payment. So if you happen to cash out your EE bond in it’s 19th year, 350th day, you’ll only get the interest earned on the initial investment. You need to wait the full 20 years to get the face value. At that point, you’ve effectively gotten an annualized return of 3.5% on your initial investment.

So let’s recap. If Grandma wants to buy a EE savings bond for a grandchild to cash in to cover some college costs, she ought to buy that bond at the same time she’s pressuring her kids to start working on grandchildren. I joke, but, I think it’s very important to recognize the world has changed, and savings bonds don’t deliver the same solutions that many people remember from years past.

But back to the boy who stood up in class to talk about the savings bonds. What about the bonds his grandparents had purchased over the past several decades? Well many of those bonds may in fact be earning interest rates of 5% to 8%. It just depends on when they were purchased. The Treasury has a savings bond wizard that will calculate the value of your old paper bonds. Give it a shot. You may be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised at the value of the bonds you have sitting around.

———-

Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

MONEY stocks

3 Things to Know About IBM’s Sinking Stock

141020_INV_IBM
Niall Carson—PA Wire/Press Association Images

IBM's shares plunged 7% Monday after a disappointing earnings report. Can tech's ultimate survivor transform itself one more time?

International Business Machines INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -7.1134% has long enjoyed a unique status on Wall Street — a tech growth powerhouse that investors also see as a reliable blue chip, with steady profit growth and a hefty dividend. But with the rise of new technologies like cloud computing, Big Blue has struggled to maintain that balancing act.

Now investor confidence has suffered a big blow.

On Monday the company announced the results of a pretty lousy quarter. IBM’s third-quarter operating profit was down by nearly one fifth, and the company failed to generate year-over-year revenue growth for the 10th consecutive quarter.

Big Blue also revealed plans to sell-off its struggling semiconductor business, a move that involves taking $4.7 pre-tax billion charge against IBM’s bottom line. Actually, it is paying another company to take this unit off its hand.

While CEO Virginia Rometty acknowledged she was “disappointed” with IBM’s recent performance, she’s also pledged to turn the company around, led in part by IBM’s own foray into the cloud.

Now, you don’t get to be a 103-year-old tech company without learning to adapt. That’s what IBM famously did in the ’90s, when the computer giant started to shift away from profitable PC hardware in favor of consulting and service contracts for businesses.

But Monday’s dismal earnings show just how hard repeating that trick could turn out to be.

Here’s what else you need to know about the stock:

1) You can’t really call IBM a growth company anymore since its sales aren’t rising.

When it comes to revenues, IBM ranks behind only Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 2.1399% and Hewlett-Packard HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ -0.9953% among U.S. tech companies. On a quarterly basis, though, sales have actually shrunk for 10 periods in a row, including a 4% slide in the third quarter. The big culprit is cloud computing, in which businesses can access computing services remotely via the Internet.

Since the 1990s, IBM’s model has been premised on selling powerful, expensive computers to large businesses, then earning added profits on contracts to help firms run those machines. But the cloud lets companies rent, not buy, this computing power. “You only pay for what you use,” says Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Joseph Foresi. The result: IBM’s hardware revenues sank 15% last quarter.

2) IBM is racing to be a leader in cloud computing, but with mixed results.

The company has identified four alternative areas of growth. One is the cloud, the very technology eating into IBM’s hardware sales. Big Blue has spent more than $7 billion on cloud-related acquisitions. It’s also going after mobile, IT security, and big data, the analysis of information sets that are too large for traditional computers. An example of that is Watson. IBM’s artificial-intelligence project, which won Jeopardy! in 2011, is being marketed to businesses in finance and health care.

These initiatives have promise, but IBM’s size is a curse. For instance, the company’s cloud revenues jumped 69% to $4.4 billion last year, but with nearly $100 billion in overall sales, “it’s hard to move the needle,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler.

3) The stock is now much cheaper than its tech peers, but it may deserve to be.

Investors willing to wait and see if these moves will transform IBM may take comfort in the fact that the stock looks cheap. What’s more, the shares yield 2.4%, vs. 2% for the broad market. This could make the company look like a good value.

But investors should tread carefully, says Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners. He notes IBM has spent $90 billion on stock buybacks in the past decade, which has kept the P/E low by increasing earnings per share. Yet none of that money was invested for growth, as evidenced by IBM’s sluggish annual growth rate. It is hard to imagine IBM outmuscling Amazon AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN 0.8464% , Cisco CISCO SYSTEMS INC. CSCO -1.3763% , Microsoft MICROSOFT CORP. MSFT 1.0314% , HP HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ -0.9953% , and Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG 1.8917% in the cloud — and there are better values in tech.

MONEY stocks

Could Another Sell-Off Be Lurking This Week?

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange October 15, 2014.
Brendan McDermid—Reuters

Last week's tumultuous week in the stock market sets the stage for yet more nervousness and hand-wringing as a fresh set of earnings and economic data are due to be released.

When Wall Street opens for business on Monday morning, will bad news about the global economy be bad news for stocks?

That was the case for most of last week, when the equity market was hit with a frightening sell-off that reminded investors of the bad old days of the financial crisis.

^INDU Chart

^INDU data by YCharts

Or will bad news turn out to be good news for the market, as was the case on Friday, when the Dow Jones industrial average soared more than 260 points?

^INDU Chart

^INDU data by YCharts

Friday’s dramatic rebound in stock prices reflected two forces that are likely to move the market in the coming days.

Keep an Eye on the Fed

At the end of this month, the Federal Reserve is slated to end its stimulative bond-buying program known as quantitative easing.

Investors are naturally nervous about this development, as quantitive easing, or QE, has been credited for the strength and length of what is now a five-and-a-half-year-old bull market. As many market observers have noted, Wall Street is about to lose a major psychological crutch.

Remember that when the Fed ended its prior two rounds of quantitative easing — in 2010 and 2011 — stocks sold off fairly quickly:

After QE round 1, which ended March 31, 2010:
^SPX Chart

^SPX data by YCharts

After QE round 2, which ended on June 30, 2011:
^SPX Chart

^SPX data by YCharts

But late last week, when the market was in the throes of a selloff, St. Louis Fed president James Bullard said in a Bloomberg TV interview that “we could go on pause on the taper at this juncture and wait until we see how the data shakes out into December.”

In other words, a member of the Federal Open Market Committee that sets the nation’s interest rate policy is openly mulling whether the Fed should postpone ending QE in light of recent market volatility.

Bullard’s remarks on Thursday were enough to give the markets a lift in the last two days of the week. And if there are more signs of a major global economic slowdown, including a possible recession in Europe and Japan, then the Fed may have to think twice about how — and how soon — it ends its stimulus efforts.

This week, investors will want to see if more members of the FOMC sound similar conciliatory notes of extending QE. So far, no one else has. Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren, a major defender of QE, said on Friday that he does not expect the Fed to extend the program at this juncture.

What else should investors look for?

  • Wednesday’s inflation report from the Department of Labor. If the global economic slowdown is starting to impact the U.S., we will start to see it in the form of lower prices for U.S. consumers.
  • Thursday’s report on the index of leading economic indicators from the Conference Board. The LEI is forward-looking barometer of economic trends, so if the global slowdown is likely to affect the U.S. in the coming months, this index should offer clues.

Keep an Eye on Earnings

Last week’s bloody selloff was peppered by major earnings disappointments on Wall Street. For instance, there was Netflix, which reported that subscriber growth wasn’t as strong as expected and saw its stock lose more than a quarter of its value on Wednesday. Google also disappointed Wall Street on earnings and revenue growth, as well as on paid clicks on ad links.

The idea is that if Wall Street is about to lose its QE crutch, it will have to fall back on the fundamentals — so corporate profit reports will have to look good.

On Friday, a slew of companies led by General Electric and Honeywell announced better-than-expected results, which helped drive stocks higher at the end of the week.

Yet the mood on Wall Street regarding earnings is somewhat pessimistic. The strengthening U.S. dollar, brought about by the global economic slowdown, is expected to crimp global profits for U.S. exporters.

This week, several high-profile earnings announcements are due to be released. Here are the major ones to look for:

  • On Monday, Apple is due to report its results after the closing bell. Everything Apple reports is news these days.
  • On Tuesday, Coca-Cola will reports its results before the market opens. No company is as exposed to the global economy as Coke is.
  • On Wednesday, Boeing is set to reveal its earnings before the market opens. The global slowdown is expected to hurt U.S. exporters, and Boeing could be a sign of how bad things have become.
  • On Thursday, Amazon.com will report after the bell. Amazon isn’t just a bellwether of the tech economy, it is now a key gauge of the health of the U.S. consumer.
MONEY Markets

The Word on Wall Street Is It’s Okay to Be Bullish Again

After the market's triple-digit rebound on Friday, the bulls came out in force — on TV and social media. Here's how the talking heads explain the state of the market after one scary week.

After dramatic drops on Monday and Wednesday, the market took a turn for the better at the end of the week.

And the bulls started coming out of the woodwork.

“…the mid-week storm in the market was really a passing sun shower — though we did not know it at the time,” — Jonathan Lewis, chief investment officer, Samson Capital Advisors.

“…we remain steadfast with our multi-year bull-market scenario, as corrections and periods of consolidation are necessary ingredients to any prolonged bull market.” — Brian Belski, chief investment strategist BMO Capital Markets

“Whether the complete correction is over I’m not positive yet, but there looks to be some relative calm. I think the next leg is going to be higher.” – Jim Iuorio of TJM Institutional Services via CNBC

“The time to rebalance [and buy stocks] is when doing so requires courage and when things look ugly. Right now, investors are worried and see things as being ugly.” – David Kotok, chairman of Cumberland Advisors

A common theme from the bulls is that for all the worries about the global recovery, the U.S. economy looks solid:

“Ironically, the pullback in stocks has occurred against a backdrop of a strengthening U.S. economy.” — Gregg Fisher, chief investment officer at Gerstein Fisher

“The question is whether it is actually the beginning of a bear market. I don’t think so because I don’t expect a recession in the U.S. anytime soon.” — Edward Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research

Of course, Yardeni goes on to add that:

“the Eurozone and Japan may be heading in that direction now. So is Brazil. China is slowing significantly.”

Shouldn’t investors be worried, then, that a recession in the European Union could reverberate in the U.S.?

Fear not, the bulls have an answer for that:

“The impact of an E.U. slowdown on U.S. growth would be minimal: U.S. exports to the E.U. are a small proportion of GDP (2.8% in 2013)…” notes UBS economist Maury Harris.

Many point out that economic factors have not really shifted since a month ago, when the stock market seemed just fine.

“You can go deep in the weeds in this if you like, but the fact is that nothing fundamental has changed in recent weeks or months or quarters,” writes Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

In fact, global economic worries, which have led to lower oil prices, may end up being a boon.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.38.52 AM

Many experts are saying that this week’s wild market swings are actually just the result of “narrative fallacy,” which leads investors to come up with explanations for market moves where they don’t necessarily exist — in this case placing blame on external forces like Ebola and fears of rising interest rates.

But who’s to say that the bulls aren’t the ones who are now coming with plausible-sounding explanations for why the rally should keep going?

For the record, the bears have more entertaining explanations in their quiver. For instance, there’s the McDonald’s theory. As in, “as the Big Mac goes, so goes the global economy.”

Permabear Marc Faber, who edits the Gloom Doom Boom site, noted the following:

“Now, McDonald’s is a very good indicator of the global economy. If McDonald’s doesn’t increase its sales, it tells you that the monetary policies have largely failed in the sense that prices are going up more than disposable income, and so people have less purchasing power.”

And Mickey D’s sales have been slumping badly lately.

Then there’s the so-called dental indicator.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported a nifty theory that says that the rate at which Americans cancel scheduled follow-up visits offers a good clue about the real state of the consumer — and in turn the financial markets.

“This is a forward indicator signifying lack of consumer confidence.” — Vijay Sikka, president of Sikka Software, as told to Bloomberg Businessweek

And the follow-through rate on follow-up dental visits has sunk to about where it was in 2007, just before the last downturn/bear market.

At this stage, it’s impossible to tell whether this is the start of bear market or a buying opportunity. However, what’s absolutely clear is that big dips are just a normal part of being a stock investor.

Despite anxieties about the Dow’s sudden plunge this week, if you look at historical performance, the index typically turns negative for the year often enough that it’s not a good doomsday indicator, says author and investment adviser Josh Brown.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.39.39 AM

And at the end of the day, who’s to say which wacky theories wind up being right or wrong?

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.40.18 AM

MONEY Federal Reserve

Janet Yellen Makes Less Than Over 100 Other Fed Staffers

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. Dominick Reuter—Reuters

She's one of the most powerful people in the global economy, but doesn't pull down the top salary in her organization

As Chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen is one of the most powerful economic figures in the world. But she’s not exactly paid like it. In fact, she’s not even the highest paid employee in her own organization.

According to Reuters, which obtained data on the Federal Reserve’s salary structure from a Freedom of Information Act request, Yellen is paid less than at least 113 other Federal Reserve employees. She earns $201,700 a year, compared to the Fed’s highest paid employee, Inspector General Mark Bialek, who makes $312,000. He is followed by the bank’s four regional directors, the general counsel, and chief operating officer, all of whom take home a base pay of $265,000.

Why is Yellen paid less than her underlings? Yellen’s salary is set by Congress, but not the Fed’s senior staff.

As Reuters reporter Michael Flaherty notes, the Fed’s high salaries aren’t costing taxpayers a penny since the organization is funded by returns on the securities it owns. (The Fed’s not a normal federal agency, but a kind of public/private hybrid that’s supposed to operate independently but “within” the government.) However, that hasn’t stopped calls for more transparency: This is the first time the Fed has revealed how much its top brass make, and the information provided to Reuters only included those with salaries of at least $225,000 a year despite the request asking for the names of all board members with wages above $130,810—the highest salary on the usual federal payscale. Some Republicans in Congress have called for legislation that would require the Fed to create a searchable database of all Federal Reserve employees who make more than that sum.

While Yellen is almost certainly underpaid considering her responsibilities, don’t feel too bad for the Fed chair. Fed officials must disclose their wealth in ranges, and according to public records, Yellen and her husband hold assets worth somewhere between $5.3 million and $14.1 million.

In an almost too-perfect twist, the news about Yellen’s pay came on morning when she spoke at a conference about growing inequality.

MONEY Markets

Four Reasons Not to Worry About the Stock Market

Waterfall
Roine Magnusson—Getty Images

Take a deep breath and consider some historical context.

The funniest thing about markets is that all past crashes are viewed as an opportunity, but all current and future crashes are viewed as a risk.

For months, investors have been saying a pullback is inevitable, healthy, and should be welcomed. Now, it’s here, with the S&P 500 down about 10% from last month’s highs.

Enter the maniacs.

“Carnage.”

“Slaughter.”

“Chaos.”

Those are words I read in finance blogs this morning.

By my count, this is the 90th 10% correction the market has experienced since 1928. That’s about once every 11 months, on average. It’s been three years since the last 10% correction, but you would think something so normal wouldn’t be so shocking.

But losing money hurts more than it should, and more than you think it will. In his book Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?, Fred Schwed wrote:

There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures. Not can any description I might offer here ever approximate what it feels like to lose a chunk of money that you used to own.

That’s fair. One lesson I learned after 2008 is that it’s much easier to say you’ll be greedy when others are fearful than it is to actually do it.

Regardless, this is a critical time to pay attention as an investor. One of my favorite quotes is Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same in investing. You don’t have to be a genius to do well in investing. You just have to not go crazy when everyone else is, like they are now.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you along.

Unless you’re impatient, innumerate, or an idiot, lower prices are your friend

You’re supposed to like market plunges because you can buy good companies at lower prices. Before long, those prices rise and you’ll be rewarded.

But you’ve heard that a thousand times.

There’s a more compelling reason to like market plunges even if stocks never recover.

The psuedoanonymous blogger Jesse Livermore asked a smart question this year: Would you rather stocks soared 200%, or fell 66% and stayed there forever? Literally, never recovering.

If you’re a long-term investor, the second option is actually more lucrative.

That’s because so much of the market’s long-term returns come from reinvesting dividends. When share prices fall, dividend yields rise, and the compounding effect of reinvesting dividends becomes more powerful. After 30 years, the plunge-and-no-recovery scenario beats out boom-and-normal-growth market by a quarter of a percentage point per year.

On that note, the S&P 500’s dividend yield rose from 1.71% in September to 1.82% this week. Whohoo!

Plunges are why stocks return more than other assets

Imagine if stocks weren’t volatile. Imagine they went up 8% a year, every year, with no volatility. Nice and stable.

What would happen in this world?

Nobody would own bonds or cash, which return about zero percent. Why would you if you could earn a steady, stable 8% return in stocks?

In this world, stock prices would surge until they offered a return closer to bonds and cash. If stocks really had no volatility, prices would rise until they yielded the same amount as FDIC-insured savings accounts.

But then — priced for perfection with no room for error — the first whiff of real-world realities like disappointing earnings, rising interest rates, recessions, terrorism, ebola, and political theater sends them plunging.

So, if stocks never crashed, prices would rise so high that a new crash was pretty much guaranteed. That’s why the whole history of the stock market is boom to bust, rinse, repeat. Volatility is the price you have to be willing to pay to earn higher returns than other assets.

They’re not indicative of the crowd

It’s easy to watch the market fall 500 points and think, “Wow, everyone is panicking. Everyone is selling. They know something I don’t.”

That’s not true at all.

Market prices reflect the last trade made. It shows the views of marginal buyers and marginal sellers — whoever was willing to buy at highest price and sell at the lowest price. The most recent price can represent one share traded, or 100,000 shares traded. Whatever it is, it doesn’t reflect the views of the vast majority of shareholders, who just sit there doing nothing.

Consider: The S&P fell almost 20% in the summer of 2011. That’s a big fall. But at Vanguard — one of the largest money managers, with more than $3 trillion — 98% of investors didn’t make a single change to their portfolios. “Ninety-eight percent took the long-term view,” wrote Vanguard’s Steve Utkus. “Those trading are a very small subset of investors.”

A lot of what moves day-to-day prices are computers playing pat-a-cake with themselves. You shouldn’t read into it for meaning.

They don’t tell you anything about the economy

It’s easy to look at plunging markets and think it’s foretelling something bad in the economy, like a recession.

But that’s not always the case.

As my friend Ben Carlson showed yesterday, there have been 13 corrections of 10% or more since World War II that were not followed by a recession. Stocks fell 35% in 1987 with no subsequent recession.

There is a huge disconnect between stocks and the economy. The correlation between GDP growth and subsequent five-year market returns is -0.06 — as in no correlation whatsoever, basically.

Vanguard once showed that rainfall — yes, rainfall — is a better predictor of future market returns than trend GDP growth, earnings growth, interest rates, or analyst forecasts. They all tell you effectively nothing about what stocks might do next.

So, breathe. Go to the beach. Hang out with your friends. Stop checking your portfolio. Life will go on.

For more on this topic:

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns. Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY The Economy

Why the Fed Should Stop Talking About Raising Interest Rates

Some central bankers have called for raising rates sooner rather than later. Recent economic data — and the huge stock market sell-off — should dampen those calls.

There have been two presidential inaugurations and six Super Bowl champions since interest rates were effectively lowered to 0%. Recently, some Federal Reserve officials have said they expect to raise rates by the middle of next year thanks to a decently expanding economy and stronger job growth.

Some central bankers, though, think the middle of 2015 is too late and have been pushing to increase borrowing costs sooner. Esther George, President of the Kansas City Fed, said as much in a speech earlier this month, and two members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted bristled against easy monetary policy in their most recent meeting.

But with developed economies around the world showing dismal growth and less-than-stellar economic metrics here at home — punctuated by a rapidly declining stock prices (the stock market is, after all, a reflection of the market’s forecast for the economy six to nine months down the road) — it might be time for these inflation hawks to quiet down.

“Until we see wages expanding faster than the rate of inflation, and significantly so, we won’t see much in the way of inflation pressure,” says Mike Schenk, Vice President of Economics & Statistics for the Credit Union National Association. “Why raise rates if you don’t have inflation?”

Inflation Hawks

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against the most recent monetary action policy, according to minutes of the meeting, due to, among other factors, the “continued strength of the real economy” and “the improved outlook for labor utilization.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said that he’s “not too concerned” about inflation growth below the Fed’s 2% target and joined Fisher in voting against the Fed policy because he disagreed with the guidance that said rates will stay at zero for “a considerable time after” the Fed ends its unconventional bond-buying program later this month.

George, meanwhile in a speech earlier this month, said Fed officials should begin talking seriously about raising rates since “starting this process sooner rather than later is important. If we continue to wait — if we continue to wait to see full employment, to see inflation running beyond the 2% target — then we risk having to move faster and steeper with interest rates in a way that is destabilizing to the economy in the long term,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Jobs

The jobs environment has been improving in recent months. The economy added almost 250,000 jobs in September and the unemployment number fell to a post-recession low of 5.9%. But the unemployment number doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you look at another metric that takes into account workers who only recently gave up looking for a job and part-time employees who want to work 40 hours a week, the situation is much worse. Before the recession, this broader unemployment rate sat at around 8%. It’s now at almost 12%. There are still about three million workers who’ve been unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, up from around 1.3 million at the end of 2007.

Inflation

Right now, and for some time, there has been very little inflation. Prices grew 1.7% over the past year in August, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index. Even the Fed’s preferred inflation tracker, the PCE deflator, showed prices gain 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

Wage growth is likewise stalled. Taking into account wages and benefits, workers have only seen a 1.8% raise. It’s just difficult to have inflation in a low interest rate environment without wage growth.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard recently said that the Fed should consider postponing the end of its bond-buying program. “Inflation expectations are declining in the U.S.,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News. “That’s an important consideration for a central bank. And for that reason I think that a logical policy response at this juncture may be to delay the end of the QE.”

Europe

European economic woes aren’t helping. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, recently cut it’s growth forecast, now only expects to grow by 1.2% in 2014 and 2015. Sweden and Spain saw prices actually decline in August, and now there’s fear that the euro zone will endure a so-called triple-dip recession. The relative prowess of the American economy compared to Europe’s has strengthened the U.S. dollar, thus making our exports less competitive.

Look, the U.S. economy isn’t about to go off a cliff. Not only did we see growth of 4.6% last quarter, but employers are adding jobs at a decent clip and the number of workers filing first-time jobless claims fell to the lowest level since 2000, per the Labor Department.

But with low inflation and European struggles to achieve anything close to robust growth, raising interest rates anytime soon doesn’t appear likely.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Help Your Kid Get Started Investing

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I want to invest $5,000 for my 35-year-old daughter, as I want to get her on the path to financial security. Should the money be placed into a guaranteed interest rate annuity? Or should the money go into a Roth IRA?

A: To make the most of this financial gift, don’t just focus on the best place to invest that $5,000. Rather, look at how this money can help your daughter develop saving and investing habits above and beyond your contribution.

Your first step should be to have a conversation with your daughter to express your intent and determine where this money will have the biggest impact. Planning for retirement should be a top priority. “But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” says Scott Whytock, a certified financial planner with August Wealth Management in Portland, Maine.

Before you jump ahead to thinking about long-term savings vehicles for your daughter, first make sure she has her bases covered right now. Does she have an emergency fund, for example? Ideally, she should have up to six months of typical monthly expenses set aside. Without one, says Whytock, she may be forced to pull money out of retirement — a costly choice on many counts — or accrue high-interest debt.

Assuming she has an adequate rainy day fund, the next place to look is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). If the plan offers matching benefits, make sure your daughter is taking full advantage of that free money. If her income and expenses are such that she isn’t able to do so, your gift may give her the wiggle room she needs to bump up her contributions.

Does she have student loans or a car loan? “Maybe paying off that car loan would free up some money each month that could be redirected to her retirement contributions through work,” Whytock adds. “She would remove potentially high interest debt, increase her contributions to her 401(k), and lower her tax base all at the same time.”

If your daughter doesn’t have a plan through work or is already taking full advantage of it, then a Roth IRA makes sense. Unlike with traditional IRAs, contributions to a Roth are made after taxes, but your daughter won’t owe taxes when she withdraws the money for retirement down the road. Since she’s on the younger side – and likely to be in a higher tax bracket later – this choice may also offer a small tax advantage over other vehicles.

Why not the annuity?

As you say, the goal is to help your daughter get on the path to financial security. For that reason alone, a simple, low-cost instrument is your best bet. Annuities can play a role in retirement planning, but their complexity, high fees and, typically, high minimums make them less ideal for this situation, says Whytock.

Here’s another idea: Don’t just open the account, pick the investments and make the contribution on your daughter’s behalf. Instead, use this gift as an opportunity to get her involved, from deciding where to open the account to choosing the best investments.

Better yet, take this a step further and set up your own matching plan. You could, for example, initially fund the account with $2,000 and set aside the remainder to match what she saves, dollar for dollar. By helping your daughter jump start her own saving and investing plans, your $5,000 gift will yield returns far beyond anything it would earn if you simply socked it away on her behalf.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY stock market

3 Ways a Market Swoon Can Put Money in Your Pocket

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Though the stock market tumble has been scary, there are some upsides to all the bad news.

With the market down more than 7% in the last month, it’s easy to feel fearful for the parts of your life most immediately affected by a rocky financial world — like retirement savings and job security.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be cautious about the future, including high valuations and other signs the current bull market may be aging.

But a downtrodden market like this one can create pockets of opportunity for investors and consumers alike. Here are just a few ways you can benefit from the recent pullback.

1. Cheaper gas prices

Thanks to a supply glut and low demand, gasoline prices are hovering at less than $3 a gallon across the United States. And that’s despite international geopolitical unrest, which usually keeps oil expensive.

2. Low interest rates on mortgages

The Fed is keeping short-term rates low, and the sell-off has sent investors into Treasury bonds, driving down the yields that serve as a benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy. So mortgage rates have taken a big dip in the last month.

Interest on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now 4.01%, which means that if you’re sitting on a much higher rate from buying a home a few years ago, now could be a very opportune moment to refinance. Though the paperwork might be intimidating, letting inertia get the best of you could mean leaving literally tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

3. Stock-buying opportunities

When the market takes a big dive, it can be a good moment to purchase stocks, especially if your goal is to buy and hold for the long term. This is particularly true for younger people who have time on their side, as they stand to lose very little in the short term (even if stocks continue to drop) and can gain much more when the market eventually recovers.

So if you are a millennial and have been putting off opening (or upping contributions to) that 401(k), now is your moment to choose a plan. And even Gen X-ers generally have enough years ahead to take on some risk in their retirement portfolios.

Finally, if you’re not a driver, homeowner, or investor, there’s always that trip to Paris you’ve been putting off: Thanks to economic uncertainty in Europe, the Euro is trading for less than $1.30—the cheapest it’s been since last summer.

MONEY Millennials

The Conventional Money Wisdom That Millennials Should Ignore

millennials looking at map on road
John Burcham—Getty Images/National Geographic

Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn't the best savings tool for some young people.

If you are in your 20s or early 30s, and you ask around for retirement advice, you will hear two things:

1. Put as much as you possibly can, as soon as you can, into a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account.

2. Put nearly all of it into equities.

There’s a lot of common sense to this. Saving early means you can take maximum advantage of the compounding of interest. And your youth makes it easier for you to bear the added risk of equities.

But life is more complicated than these simple intuitions suggest. Here’s a troubling data point: According to a Fidelity survey of 401(k) plan participants, 44% of job changers in their 20s cashed out all or part of their money, despite being hit with taxes and penalties. Switchers in their 30s were only a bit more conservative, with 38% cashing out.

You really don’t want to do this. But let’s get beyond the usual scolding. The reality that so many people are cashing out is also telling us something. Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn’t the best savings tool for some young people.

The conventional 401(k) advice—which is enshrined in the popular “target-date” mutual funds that put 90% of young savers’ portfolios in stocks—imagines twentysomethings as the ideal buy-and-hold investors, as close as individuals can get to something like the famous, swashbuckling Yale University endowment fund. Young people have very long time horizons and no need to sell holdings for current income, the thinking goes, so why not accept the possibility of some (violently) bad years in order to stretch for higher return? But on a moment’s reflection on what life is actually like in your 20s, you see that many young people are already navigating a fair amount of economic risk.

Take career risk. On the plus side, when you’re young you have more years of earnings ahead of you than behind you, and that’s a valuable asset to have. Then again, you also face a lot of uncertainty about how big those earnings will be. If you are just gaining a foothold in your career, getting laid off or fired from your current job might be a short-term paycheck interruption—or it could be the reversal that sets you on a permanently lower-earning track. You may also be financially vulnerable if you still have high-interest debts to settle, a new mortgage that hasn’t had time to build up equity, or low cash reserves to get your through a bad spell.

This is why Micheal Kitces, a financial planner at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md., tells me he doesn’t encourage people in their 20s to focus on building their investment portfolio. You almost never hear that kind of thing from a planner, so let me clarify that he’s not saying you should spend to your heart’s content. (Kitces is in fact a bit stern on one point: He thinks many young professionals spend too much on housing.) He’s talking about priorities. For one thing, you need to build up that boring cash cushion. Without it, you are more likely to be one of those people who has to cash out the 401(k) after a job change.

Even before that’s done, you’ll still want to aim to put enough in a 401(k) to max out the matching contributions from your employer, if that’s on the table. (Typically, that’s 6% of salary.) So maybe all or most of that goes in stocks? An attention-getting new brief from the investment strategists Research Affiliates argues “no”—that instead of putting new savers into a 90%-equities target date fund, 401(k) plans should get people going with lower-risk “starter portfolios.”

I’m not sold on all of RA’s argument, which drives toward a proposal that 401(k)s should include unusual funds like the ones RA happens to help manage. But CEO Rob Arnott and his coauthor Lilian Wu offer a lot to chew on. They make two big points about young people and risk. One’s just intuitive: If you have little experience as an investor and quickly get your hat handed to you in a bear market, you could be so scarred from the experience that you get out of stocks and never come back. At least until the next bull market makes it irresistible.

The other is that 401(k) plan designers should accept the fact—all the advice and penalties notwithstanding—that many young people do cash them out like rainy-day funds when they lose their jobs. And so the starter funds should have a bigger cushion of lower-risk assets. That’s especially important given that recessions and layoffs often come after big market drops, so the people cashing out may well be selling stocks at exactly the wrong moment, and from severely depleted portfolios.

RA thinks a portfolio for new savers should be made up of just one third “mainstream” stocks, with another third in traditional bonds and the last third in what it calls “diversifying inflation hedges.” That last bit could include inflation protected Treasuries (or TIPS), but also junk bonds, emerging markets investments, real estate, and low-volatility stocks. Whatever the virtues of those investments, it seems to me that a starter portfolio should be easy to explain to a starting investor. “Diversifying inflation hedges” doesn’t sound like that.

But the insight that new investors might not be immediately prepared for full-tilt equity-market risk is valuable. Many 401(k) plans automatically default young savers into stock-heavy target date funds, but they could just as easily start with a more-traditional balanced fund, which holds a steady 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. Perhaps higher risk strategies should be left as a conscious choice, for people who not only have a lot of time, but also a bit more market knowledge and a stable financial picture outside of their 401(k).

The trouble is, most 401(k) plans don’t know much about an individual saver besides their age. The 401(k) is a blunt, flawed tool, and just putting different kinds of mutual funds inside of it isn’t going to solve all of the difficulties people run into when trying to save for the future. Arnott and Wu’s proposal doesn’t do anything about the fact that using a 401(k) for rainy days means paying steep penalties. And it doesn’t help people build up the cash reserves outside their retirement plans that they’d need to avoid that.

As boomers head into retirement, we’ve all become very aware of the importance of getting people to prepare for life after 65. But millennials also need better ideas to help get them safely (financially speaking) to 35.

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