MONEY The Economy

The Stock Market Loses a Big Crutch as the Fed Ends ‘Quantitative Easing’

The Fed has concluded its asset-purchasing program thanks to an improving labor market. Here's what QE3 has meant to investors and the economy.

After spending trillions of dollars on bond purchases since the end of the Great Recession — to keep interest rates low to boost spending, lending, and investments — the Federal Reserve ended its stimulus program known as quantitative easing.

The central bank’s decision to stop buying billions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-related bonds each month comes as the U.S. economy has shown signs of recent improvement.

U.S. gross domestic product grew an impressive 4.6% last quarter. And while growth dropped at the start of this year, thanks to an unusually bad winter, the economy expanded at annual pace of 4.5% and 3.5% in the second half of 2013.

Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 227,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate rests at a post-recession low of 5.9%. It was at 7.8% in September 2012, when this round of quantitative easing, known as QE3, began.

What this means for interest rates
Even with QE over, the Fed is unlikely to start raising short-term interest rates until next year, at the earliest.

In part due to the strengthening dollar and weakening foreign economies, inflation has failed to pick up despite the Fed’s unprecedented easy monetary policy.

And there remains a decent bit of slack in the labor market. For instance, there are still a large number of Americans who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (almost 3 million), and the labor-force participation rate has continued its decade long decline. Even the participation rate of those between 25 to 54 is lower than it was pre-recession.

What this means for investors
For investors, this marks the end of a wild ride that saw equity prices rise, bond yields remain muted, and hand wringing over inflation expectations that never materialized.

S&P 500:
Equities enjoyed an impressive run up after then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced the start of a third round of bond buying in September 2012. Of course the last two times the Fed ended quantitative easing, equities faced sell-offs. From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 rose 35% during QE1 (Dec. 2008 through March 2010), gained 10% during QE2 (Nov. 2010 through June 2011) and has gained about 30% during QE3 (from Sept. 2012 through this month), according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Three months after QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell 12%. And three months after QE2 concluded, the S&P 500 was down 14%.

 

Stocks

10-year Treasury yields:

As has been the case for much of the post-recession recovery, U.S. borrowing costs have remained low thanks to a lack of strong consumer demand — and the Fed’s bond buying. Many investors paid dearly for betting incorrectly on Treasuries, including the Bill Gross who recently left his perch at Pimco for Janus.

Bonds

10-year breakeven inflation rate:

A sign that inflation failed to take hold despite unconventionally accommodative monetary policy is the so-called 10-year breakeven rate, which measures the difference between the yield on 10-year Treasuries and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The higher the gap, the higher the market’s expectation for inflation. As you can see, no such expectation really materialized.

BreakEven

Inflation:

Despite concern that the Fed’s policy would lead to run-away inflation, we remain mired in a low-inflation environment.

fredgraph

Unemployment Rate:

The falling unemployment rate has been a real a bright spot for the economy. If you look at a broader measure of employment, one which takes into account those who’ve just given up looking for a job and part-time workers who want to work full-time, unemployment is elevated, but declining.

unemployment rate

Compared to the economic plight of other developed economies, the U.S. looks to be in reasonable shape. That in part is thanks to bold monetary policy at a time of stagnant growth.

Indeed, many economists now argue that the European Central Bank, faced with an economy that’s teetering on another recession, ought to take a page from the Fed’s playbook and try its own brand of quantitative easing.

MONEY Social Security

Why Your Social Security Check Isn’t Keeping Up With Your Costs

Next year retirees will see their benefits rise by the inflation rate. But that may not be the best measure of seniors' true spending.

Social Security’s annual inflation adjustment is one of the program’s most valuable features. But it’s time to adjust the adjustment.

Retirees will get a 1.7% bump in their Social Security benefit next year, according to the Social Security Administration, which announced the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on Wednesday. Recipients of disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income also will receive the COLA.

That reflects continuing slow inflation in the economy—the COLA has averaged 1.6% over the past four years—but it’s not enough to keep up with the higher inflation retirees face.

My in-box fills up with angry e-mail messages about the COLA every year. So if you’re gearing up to accuse Washington politicians of conspiring against seniors, please note: By law, the COLA is determined by a formula that ties it to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

There is good news about this year’s COLA: Beneficiaries will keep every penny. There won’t be any offset for a higher Medicare Part B premium, which typically is deducted from Social Security payments. The premium will stay at $104.90 for the third consecutive year.

Still, the COLA formula should be revised as part of the broader Social Security reform that Congress must tackle. Many economists and policymakers say the CPI-W doesn’t measure retiree inflation accurately.

“From an ideal math perspective, what you want is a calculation based on an index that matches retirees’ cost of living,” says Polina Vlasenko, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “The CPI-W is constructed to measure spending patterns of urban wage earners, and it’s pretty clear that retired people spend differently than wage earners.”

A recent national survey by the Senior Citizens League illustrates the cost pressures seniors, especially those living on fixed, lower amounts of income, face. Half of retirees said their monthly expenses rose more than $119 this year, while an even higher percentage (65%) said their benefits rose by less than $19 per month.

Other research by the group, based on BLS data, shows that Social Security beneficiaries have lost 31% of their buying power since 2000. Among big-ticket items, the largest price hikes were for property taxes (104%), gasoline (160%), some types of food and healthcare expenses.

Low COLAs also cut into future benefits for Americans who are eligible for benefits (ages 62 to 70) but haven’t yet filed. When you delay taking benefits until a later age—say, full retirement age (66)—you get full benefits increased by the COLAs awarded for the intervening years.

COLAs are prominent in the debate over Social Security reform that is likely to be rekindled in the next Congress. COLA reform could involve more generous adjustments – or a benefit cut. A cut would be achieved by adopting the “chained CPI,” which some say more accurately measures changes in consumer spending by reflecting substitution of purchases that they make when prices rise. The Social Security Administration has estimated the chained CPI would reduce COLAs by three-tenths of a percent annually.

A more generous COLA would come via the CPI-E (for “elderly”), an alternative, experimental index maintained by the BLS that is more sensitive to retirees’ spending. That index generally rises two-tenths of a percent faster than the CPI-W.

Congress has been gridlocked on Social Security, but public opinion is clear. The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) released a national poll Thursday that shows 72% support raising benefits. The survey also asks Americans to say how reform should be paid for. The most popular options (71%) included a gradual elimination of the cap on income taxed for Social Security ($117,000 this year, and $118,500 in 2015) and a gradual increase over 20 years on the payroll tax rates workers and employers both pay, from 6.2% to 7.2%.

Poll respondents also backed adoption of a more generous COLA, such as the CPI-E.

“Seniors are noticing the very small COLAs, and they just have a feeling that prices are going up more than that,” says Virginia Reno, NASI’s vice president for income security policy. “If you measure the market basket separately for seniors, average inflation has been a bit higher because they spend a larger share of their money on healthcare, and for things like housing and heating.”

Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

MONEY the photo bank

FREE MONEY! (If You _ _ _ _ It)

What if you found a dollar bill on the street? Would you pick it up? What if it was taped to a window in a grid with 99 more of its friends? Would you pull it off? What if I told you it was Art?

At the recent 2014 DUMBO Arts Festival, that “free money” was the artwork of North Carolina–based artist and educator Jody Servon. In her “I _ _ _ _ a dollar” installation piece, on the storefront window of a building on Plymouth Street between Washington and Main streets, she offered up 100 one-dollar bills for all to see or take.

Next to the display, Servon posted a short statement:

There was a time when a single dollar made a difference in the quality of my day. It either bought me food or kept me from walking a few miles to school in the rain. Viewers are invited to contemplate their situation and decide if they want or need a dollar. If you want the dollar, consider if it is better left for someone who may need it. If in need, you are invited to take one of the 100 one-dollar bills hanging on the wall to make a difference in your day.

“I _ _ _ _ a dollar” was originally created in 2012, for the exhibition “Poor Quality: Inequality” at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. Noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely offered artists an honorarium of $100 to create work based on the topic of social and economic inequality. Servon, the sole recipient of the money, went ahead to do the most daring thing an emerging artist can do: She gave it all away. As Servon recounts:

The honorarium to create the work was $100, and I used the entire amount to fund the dollar bills for the project. I came upon this idea when I thought about my socio-economic background and different times in my life when I had less money and how this lack of funds impacted by daily existence. I wanted to open up a situation for others to consider the economics of their situation at the moment they experienced my project.

Festival-goers who saw it in the six-plus hours that the piece remained on the window in DUMBO had many reactions. Some took pictures of the dollars tacked to the glass or posing with money they had taken, others were touching the bills and lifting them to check if they was real. Servon recounted a red-haired woman who shook her finger at two young adults who pulled money from the wall, lecturing to all who would listen, “Do you really need the money? If you don’t need it, don’t take it.” The same lady returned to the installation many times to check on the status of the dollars. Servon told me:

There were all sorts of interventions that took place—people added money (dollar bills and a five-dollar bill). There is a photo I took of a woman getting a high five after adding a dollar and telling her friend that ‘Someone needs it more than I do, and now I feel part of the project.’ For the first few hours, whenever someone took a dollar, someone soon replaced it so the total didn’t go below the original 100 dollars. At times, the amount was greater than 100 with people continuing to add money. I particularly enjoyed hearing people talk about the value of a dollar and whether or not it made a difference to them at that moment or if it could make a difference to someone else.

With inflation, a single dollar clearly does not have the same value and the impact it once did. For example, in the mid-1990s the vending machines in my high school sold a package of M&M’s for 50 cents; the same colorful chocolate candies cost $1.00 in the machines in the Time Inc. kitchen today. And though photographer Jonathan Blaustein included a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s in his project “The Value of a Dollar” (which documented what could be purchased for that amount in 2010), they are now listed on the 2014 “Dollar Menu & More” for $1.49.

Still, sometimes a dollar can make a difference in the life of someone who is carrying no cash and just wants a drink or a snack or to pay for parking. Or the emotional lift that comes from finding “lucky money.” As Servon explained, the value of the dollar is not really the point:

I am not really asking if a dollar will change peoples’ lives, but rather could it make a difference in that moment for that person encountering the work or for someone else in the future. The work is about asking people to consider their want versus need in relation to others in their community.

In a past installation of the project in downtown Greensboro, N.C., she installed a hidden surveillance camera aimed at the grid from across the street to document the results with shots taken every five seconds for the six hours during which money still remained. The resulting video of time-lapse stills shows various reactions to the installation.

I asked Servon what she thought would happen if her concept existed on a larger scale. What if, instead of asking people to consider the one-dollar bills, they were hundreds or thousands? What if an ATM machine or a bank vault were just left open? Her guess was that the higher the denomination, the more quickly the money would disappear and the piece would end. The smaller denomination, she says, makes people consider “want” and “need” more actively.

Just months ago, Jason Buzi and Yan Budman, founders of the @HiddenCash phenomenon, created a Twitter-based scavenger hunt for envelopes containing up to $140 in cash. They invited the world to show up to various locations, follow their clues, and locate the money they left for would-be treasure hunters. A frenzy ensued, with @HiddenCash giving away more than $15,000. In this case, the reward was enough to cover people’s groceries or provide free plane tickets “to connect loved ones.” Buzi and Budman’s social media experiment was philanthropic, with the goal of inspiring people to “pay it forward.”

Jody Servon’s work is different. While she acknowledges that giving someone a dollar could be an act of kindness, she is more interested in starting a discussion. That’s why an invitation to fill in the blank in the phrase “I —-a dollar” is posted beside the installation of the work. She has been intrigued by the many ways in which people have responded to the challenge.

She’s also interested in catching viewers off guard. While she posts about the work on social media—and a second installation, “Dreams For Free,” in which she gives away lottery tickets in exchange for the recipients’ telling her their dreams of what they would do with the money—she never gives away the exact location. “I enjoy the element of surprise from people that happen upon the hanging dollars.”

So the next time you come across a grid of dollar bills on the street, know that there’s free money to be had—if you _ _ _ _ it.

This is part of The Photo Bank, a new section of Money.com dedicated to conceptually-driven photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank will showcase a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com: sarina.finkelstein@timeinc.com.

More from The Photo Bank:
Looking at ‘Rich and Poor,’ 37 Years Later
When the DynaTAC Brick Phone Was Must-Have Technology
Inside the ‘Pay What You Want’ Marketplace
The Costs of Bringing Up Baby

MONEY The Economy

If You’re Looking for Work, the Outlook is Brightening

open plan office
Mark Bowden—iStock

While the number of Americans in the labor pool is still at worrisome lows, the outlook for those who are employed or are still looking is improving

While there’s great debate about why so many Americans have dropped out of the workforce, there is new hope for those who have stuck it out in the labor pool.

The government reported on Thursday that the number of workers filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits dropped to 298,000 in the week ended Aug. 23, another sign that the job market is stabilizing.

This marked the second straight week of declines in initial claims. More importantly, the four-week average claims figure itself is now just below the 300,000 mark — at 299,750 — putting the job market back where it was before the global financial crisis began in 2007.

US Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance Chart

US Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance data by YCharts

To be sure, pessimists (and market bears) will point out that the overall unemployment rate, which stands at 6.2%, still has a ways to go before improving to pre-crisis levels:

US Unemployment Rate Chart

US Unemployment Rate data by YCharts

And as economist Ed Yardeni, head of Yardeni Research, points out, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and other policy makers don’t look at just this one measure of the job market. In fact, she looks at 19.

“Among her favorite labor market indicators is wage inflation,” he said, “which remains too low, in her opinion.” Money‘s Pat Regnier has more about that here.

US Real Average Hourly Earnings Chart

US Real Average Hourly Earnings data by YCharts

But Yardeni points out that wages and salaries on a per-payroll employee basis — in other words, measuring folks who have a job —are nonetheless up 8% over the past 10 years.

So it just goes to reinforce the divide: If you’re employed or in the work force, things are probably looking up. If you’ve dropped out, on the other hand, the picture may not be so bright.

MONEY Economy

Is Inflation Really Dead?

201409_TBQ_1
Joe Pugliese

We put the question to Pimco Chief Economist Paul McCulley, who explains why you don't have to worry about rising prices—and why Forrest Gump was a great economist.

Paul McCulley, 57, retired from Pimco in 2010 but returned as chief economist in May. Pimco runs almost $2 trillion, including Pimco Total Return, the world’s largest bond mutual fund. McCulley coined the term “shadow banks” in 2007 to explain how Wall Street could trigger a financial panic.

MONEY assistant managing editor Pat Regnier spoke to McCulley in late July; this edited interview appeared in the September 2014 issue of the magazine.

Q: Is inflation really dead?

A: Inflation, which is below 2% per year, may very well move above 2%. In fact, that is very much the Federal Reserve’s objective. So it will move up, but only from below 2% to just above 2%. But in terms of whether we will have an inflationary problem, I don’t think we have much to worry about. Back in my youth, in the days of Paul Volcker at the Fed in the early 1980s, inflation was considered the No. 1 problem. Now I’m not even sure it’s on the top 10 list, but it for darned sure ain’t No. 1.

Q: What’s holding inflation down?

A: First, we’ve had very low inflation for a long time, and there’s inertia to inflation. The best indicator of where inflation will be next year is to start from where it is this year. We won the war against inflation. It’s that simple.

Second, we still have slack in our economy, in both labor markets as well as in product markets. Companies have very little pricing power—as an aside, the Internet is a reinforcing factor because consumers can find the price of everything. And we have too many people unemployed or underemployed for workers to be running around demanding raises.

Finally, the Fed has credibility, so expectations of inflation are low. Unmoored expectations could foster higher inflation, as companies try to anticipate higher costs. Fed credibility is a bulwark against that. Unlike 30 years ago, the Fed has had demonstrable success in keeping prices stable by showing it is willing to raise short-term rates to slow growth and inflation.

Q: What about quantitative easing, in which the Fed buys bonds with money it creates? Doesn’t that create inflationary pressure?

A: I’ve been hearing that song for the last five years. And inflation has yet to show up on the dance floor. People say, “The Fed’s been printing money. It’s got to someday show up in higher inflation.” My answer, borrowing from the famous economist Forrest Gump, is that money is as money does. And it ain’t doin’ much.

Q: You mean money isn’t getting out of banks into the broader economy to drive up prices?

A: Yeah. I mean the Fed has created a lot of money, but it’s done so when the private sector is in deleveraging mode, meaning people are trying to get out of debt. There has been low demand for credit, so the inflationary effect of money creation has been very feeble.

Q: You’ve said that a low-inflation world also means low yields and low fixed-income returns. Why?

A: People my age—I’m 57—remember the days of double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation. But as the Fed’s fought and won its multidecade war against inflation, interest rates have come down. And it has been a glorious ride for bond investors from a total-return perspective because when interest rates fall, bond prices go up, so you earn more than the stated interest rate.

But now inflation is actually below where the Fed says it should be. So there’s nowhere lower that we want to go on inflation to pull interest rates down further. Now what you see is what you get, which is low stated nominal yields. In fact, rates will drift up in the years ahead, which is actually negative for the prices of bonds.

Q: What does this mean for how I should be positioning myself as a bond investor?

A: First and foremost is to set realistic expectations that low single digits is all you’re going to get from your bond allocation.

New normal

Q: Is there anything I can do to get better yields?

A: For bond investors, what makes sense right now is to be in what Pimco Total Return Fund manager Bill Gross calls “safe spread” investments. These are shorter-duration bonds—meaning they are less sensitive to interest rate changes—that also pay out higher yields than Treasuries do. These could be corporate bonds or mortgage-related debt. They can also be global bonds.

Q: Pimco says investors should also hold some TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. Why would I own an inflation-protected bond in a low-inflation world?

A: It’s a diversification bet in some respects. But also, the Fed’s objective is 2% inflation, higher than it is now. What’s more likely? That the Fed misses the mark by letting inflation fall to 1%, or by letting inflation hit 3%? I think 3% to 4% is more likely. TIPS protect you against the risk of 3% to 4% inflation. The Fed has made clear that if it’s going to make a mistake, it wants to tilt to the high side, not the low.

Q: Why wouldn’t the Fed just aim for the lowest possible inflation rate?

A: When the next recession hits, do you want a starting point of inflation in the 1% zone? No. A recession pulls down inflation, and then you are in the zero-inflation or deflation zone.

Q: And deflation is bad because … ?

A: Because then people with debt face a higher real burden of paying it off.

Q: How much time does Pimco spend guessing what the Fed will decide? Pimco Total Return lagged in 2013 when the Fed signaled an earlier-than-expected end to quantitative easing.

A: You’ve asked me a difficult question because I wasn’t here. But I was here for the entire first decade of the 2000s, and I know a lot about the firm. I can tell you the firm spends a huge amount of time and, more important, intellectual energy in macroeconomic analysis, including trying to reverse-engineer what the Fed’s game plan is. Fed anticipation is a key to what Pimco does. You don’t always get it right, but not for a lack of effort.

Q: You argued the 2008 crisis was the result of good times making investors complacent. With Fed chair Janet Yellen talking about high prices for things like biotech stocks, is complacency a danger again?

A: I don’t worry too much about irrational exuberance in things like biotech. It doesn’t involve the irrational creation of credit, as the property bubble did. Think of the Internet and tech bubble back in 1999. It created a nasty spell, but it didn’t lead to five years in purgatory for the economy either.

MONEY

Don’t Worry About Inflation Yet, Say Economists

A group of 257 economists say the Federal Reserve is right to keep interest rates low.

A new study shows economists believe the Federal Reserve is doing the right thing by keeping interest rates low.

According to the August Economic Policy Survey, published semiannually by the National Association for Business Economics, 53% of the association’s 257 members said monetary policy was on the right track, while only 39% felt policy was too stimulative.

There has been concern from some quarters that the Fed’s consistently low rates are flooding the market with cheap credit, pushing up the cost of goods. Inflation already appears to have reached the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%, and some, like Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, think the central bank must act far in advance to prevent prices from rising too quickly.

The Fed has countered that employment and the real estate market must recover further—neither area is back to pre-recession levels—before upping interest rates becomes a viable option. Raising rates while the economy is still weak has the potential to stall GDP growth if businesses once again become reluctant invest money in jobs and capital. MONEY’s Taylor Tepper previously explained how Sweden’s premature interest rate hike has put the brakes on what was once Europe’s most encouraging economic comeback.

For now, at least, economists at the NABE seem to have taken the Federal Reserve’s side.

“Most panelists do not see inflation being a major concern in the coming years,” said Peter Evans, chair of the NABE Policy Survey Committee. “The majority of NABE panelists believe that inflation will be at or near 2% in 5 years.”

However, that support may not be permanent. Evans says the central bank’s approval rating inside NABE has edged downward since last year. All eyes remain on the Fed as it gradually winds down its quantitative easing program and watches the job market for signs of improvement. If inflation picks up, the bank may have to act—or risk a much less favorable approval rating from experts 12 months from now.

MONEY Federal Reserve

The Big Takeaway From Yellen’s Speech. It’s About Jobs

At Jackson Hole, Yellen is greeted by demonstrators who want the Fed to push for more jobs John Locher—AP

Fed Chairman Janet Yellen says the weak economy has room to improve. But many Americans may never get back to work.

Federal Reserve chairm Janet Yellen gave a much-anticipated speech at the Fed’s annual Jackson Hole, Wyo. symposium Friday. The transcript isn’t exactly beach reading. Fed officials, wary of spooking antsy stock and bond traders, can be almost maddeningly obscure. But anyone who’s following the stock market — or looking for a job — should pay attention.

Five years after the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve is still taking extraordinary measures to prop up the economy, including buying up bonds and holding interest rates near zero. Those measures can spur growth as long as the economy isn’t running at full capacity. But once it is, the fear is that they can spur too much inflation.

Officials at the Fed, including the presidents of the regional banks and members of the committee that sets rates, are split into two broad camps. Inflation “hawks” believe it’s time to start weaning the economy from aid. “Doves” favor continued intervention. Earlier this week the release of the minutes of a Fed meeting in late July showed the hawks pressing their point, emphasizing that the economy was improving and raising questions about whether the much-anticipated return to normal interest rates should begin.

Yellen is widely considered a dove. That means on Friday Fed watchers were looking for signs she might be trying to rebut the argument that the economy is running near full tilt. In the event, she seemed to give ammunition to both hawks and doves.

Here are the speech’s highlights:

Yellen starts off both cheering the recovery and reminding us how far we may still have to go.

The unemployment rate, at 6.2 percent in July, has declined nearly 4 percentage points from its late 2009 peak. Over the past year, the unemployment rate has fallen considerably, and at a surprisingly rapid pace. These developments are encouraging, but it speaks to the depth of the damage that, five years after the end of the recession, the labor market has yet to fully recover.

That’s pretty dovish.

But in the bulk of her speech she explains reasons why it’s hard to get a read on the labor market, starting with the fact so many people have been out of work for so long.

Consider first the behavior of the labor force participation rate, which has declined substantially since the end of the recession even as the unemployment rate has fallen. As a consequence, the employment-to-population ratio has increased far less over the past several years than the unemployment rate alone would indicate, based on past experience. For policymakers, the key question is: What portion of the decline in labor force participation reflects structural shifts and what portion reflects cyclical weakness in the labor market?

That’s subtly hawkish. Here’s why: Usually, when the unemployment rate falls more people start looking for work. This time that hasn’t happened to the extent one might expect. The worry is, if there’s a big group of workers who just aren’t going to come back into the work force—because they are just too discouraged, or they don’t have the skills for the current jobs on offer, or maybe because they’ve been replaced by new technology—then maybe there isn’t as much “slack” in the economy as the low participation numbers suggest. Even with a comparatively high number of people working, employers could start to feel pressure to raise wages (creating inflationary pressures) to attract and retain the workers who’ve stayed in the labor force.

Yellen doesn’t answer whether this “structural” worry is justified, but she does flesh out the problem further.

….the rapid pace of retirements over the past few years might reflect some degree of pull-forward of future retirements in the face of a weak labor market.

Translation: Many baby boomers who lost their jobs may simply have decided to retire, rather than seek to reboot their careers.

But then Yellen goes a bit dovish again. She points out that wage growth has in fact been sluggish. That suggests at least some extra slack.

Over the past several years, wage inflation, as measured by several different indexes, has averaged about 2 percent, and there has been little evidence of any broad-based acceleration in either wages or compensation.

In other words, the Fed is still playing wait-and-see. For investors, that suggests more of the fairly bullish status quo: low rates and a slow unwinding of the “quantitative easing” bond-buying program. For people hoping for the job market to come roaring back, the Yellen’s speech sounds a somewhat discouraging note. It suggests that the economy could have shifted into a permanently slower mode, with fewer jobs. Or, at any rate, that there are many at the Fed who are willing to live with that to ensure inflation stays low.

MONEY Social Security

What’s Missing in Your New Social Security Benefits Statement

colored balloons in a question mark formation
iStock

Many workers will start receiving Social Security benefits statements again. Just don't expect to see much discussion of inflation's impact on your payout.

The Social Security Administration will be mailing annual benefit statements for the first time in three years to some American workers. That’s good news, because the statements provide a useful projection of what you can expect to receive in benefits at various retirement ages, if you become widowed or suffer a disability that prevents you from working.

But if you do receive a statement next month, it is important to know how to interpret the benefit projections. They are likely somewhat smaller than the dollar amount you will receive when you actually claim benefits, because they are expressed in today’s dollars—before adjustment for inflation.

That is a good way to help future retirees understand their Social Security benefits in the context of today’s economy—both in terms of purchasing power, and how it compares with current take-home pay. “For someone who is 50 years old, this approach allows us to provide an illustration of their benefits that are in dollars comparable to people they might know today getting benefits,” says Stephen Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary. “It helps people understand their benefit relative to today’s standard of living.”

In part, the idea here is to keep Social Security out of the business of forecasting future inflation scenarios in the statement that might—or might not—pan out. The statement also provides a starting point for workers to consider the impact of delayed filing.

“It provides valuable information about how delaying when you start your benefit between 62 and 70 will increase the monthly amount for the rest of your life—an important fact for workers to consider,” says Virginia Reno, vice president for income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance.

Unfortunately, the annual statement is silent when it comes to putting context around the specific benefit amounts. The document’s only reference to inflation is a caveat that the benefit figures presented are estimates. The actual number, it explains, could be affected by changes in your earnings over time, any changes to benefits Congress might enact, and by cost-of-living increases after you start getting benefits.

And the unadjusted expression of benefits can create glitches in retirement plans if you do not put the right context around them. Financial planners don’t always get it right, says William Meyer, co-founder of Social Security Solutions, a company that trains advisers and markets a Social Security claiming decision software tool.

“Most advisers do a horrible job coming up with expected returns. They choose the wrong ones or over-estimate,” he says, adding that some financial planning software tools simply apply a single discount rate (the current value of a future sum of money) to all asset classes: stocks, bonds and Social Security. What’s needed, he says, is a differentiated calculation of how Social Security benefits are likely to grow in dollar terms by the time you retire, compared with other assets.

“Take someone who is 54 years old today—and her statement says she can expect a $1,500 monthly benefit 13 years from now when she is at her full retirement age of 67,” says William Reichenstein, Meyer’s partner and a professor of investment management at Baylor University. “If inflation runs 2% every year between now and then, that’s a cumulative inflation of 30%, so her benefit will be $1,950—but prices will be 30 percent higher, too.

“But if I show you that number, you might think ‘I don’t need to save anything—I’ll be rich.’ A much better approach for that person is to ask herself if she can live on $1,500 a month. If not, she better think about saving.”

About those annual benefit statements: the Social Security Administration stopped mailing most paper statements in 2011 in response to budget pressures, saving $70 million annually. Instead, the agency has been trying to get people to create “My Social Security” accounts at its website, which allows workers to download electronic versions of the statement. The move prompted an outcry from some critics, who argue that the mailed statement provides an invaluable reminder each year to workers of what they can expect to get back from payroll taxes in the future.

Hence the reversal. Social Security announced last spring that it is re-starting mailings in September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up for online accounts. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60.

MONEY Health Care

Why the Good News for Retiree Health Care May Not Last

With overall health-care costs in check, Medicare didn't hike the premiums seniors pay again this year. But once economic growth picks up, rising prices could come back too.

Medicare turned 49 years old last week, and the program celebrated with some good financial news for seniors: Premiums will not rise in 2015 for the third consecutive year.

The question now: How long can the good news persist? Worries about Medicare’s long-range financial health persist, but for now persistent low healthcare cost inflation will translate into a monthly premium of $104.90 next year for Part B (outpatient services), according to the Medicare trustees. Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) says the average premium for a basic Part D prescription drug plan will rise by about $1, to $32 per month.

The Part B premium has been $104.90 since 2012—except for 2011, when it actually dropped by about $15, to $99.90. The moderation is good news for seniors, since premiums are deducted from Social Security checks. Beneficiaries will keep all of next year’s Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, which likely will be about 1.7%.

Meanwhile, the average Part D premium has been $30 or $31 since 2011. That’s because of a dramatic shift to cheap generic drugs, and innovation by plan providers competing for customers.

“Seniors can expect to see more of what they’ve been getting over the last few years, which is increasing effort by Part D insurers to offer very-low-premium plans,” says Matthew Eyles, executive vice president of Avalere Health, a consulting firm specializing in healthcare.

As in recent years, Eyles says, the best deals will be found in plans that require enrollment in preferred pharmacy networks. Those plans offer lower premiums and co-pays. “We’ll also see plans limiting or eliminating deductibles, and encouraging the use of generics by offering them free or at nominal prices,” says Eyles.

But the average figures mask a more complicated story. Part D enrollees will find significant regional variations in premiums around the country. CMS data shows average premiums will be as low as $21.19 in New Mexico, and $25.83 in Florida—but as high as $39.74 in Idaho and Utah.

Eyles says it is not entirely clear why premiums will vary so extensively, although the prices tend to track the overall cost of healthcare, and are related to the overall healthiness of seniors by state.

“The plan providers have to submit bids for regions that take into account differences in the enrolled populations, including prescribing and utilization patterns,” he says. “It could be that one state tends to have more people using statins, or a diabetes medication.”

Another complication in Part D is the “doughnut hole,” the gap in coverage for Part D enrollees with high drug costs. Higher-cost plans are available to provide gap coverage, but the hole’s size is being shrunk under a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the gap is set to disappear in 2020.

The coverage gap begins after you and your drug plan have spent a certain amount for covered drugs. Next year the gap starts at $2,960 (up from $2,850 this year) and ends after you’ve spent $4,700 (up from $4,550 this year).

Seniors who enter the gap also get discounts on brand-name and generic drugs, and those breaks will be larger next year. Enrollees will pay 45% of the cost of brand-name drugs in 2015 (down from 47.5% this year) and 65% of the cost of generic drugs (down from 72% this year).

Can the recent good news on lower healthcare costs continue indefinitely? Medicare spending reflects our overall health economy, and the big picture is that the United States does not have effective controls on spending growth. Healthcare outlays have quadrupled since the 1950s as a percentage of gross domestic product, to 17.7% in 2011. What’s more, our spending is more than double any other major industrialized nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Still, our per capita Medicare spending growth averaged 2% from 2009 to 2012, and it was nearly zero last year.

The Obama administration often points to the ACA, but outside experts are more skeptical. Research published this month by Health Affairs, a leading health policy and research and journal, credited 70% of the recent spending slowdown to the slack economy. Absent further changes in the structure of our healthcare system, the researchers expect higher healthcare inflation to resume as the economy improves.

“A significant amount of it is due to the economic slowdown,” says Eyles, “although we know that changes in the way providers deliver care, and how providers are being paid are also making a difference in the overall rate of growth.”

MONEY The Economy

For the Fed, There’s Only One Excuse Left to Keep Rates Low

Aerial view of housing development
David Zimmerman—Getty Images

The economy and inflation have now risen to levels where the Fed has to start thinking about raising rates. The only excuse left: the weaker-than-expected housing market.

The pressure is mounting on the Federal Reserve to start raising interest rates — and Fed chair Janet Yellen is running out of excuses.

On Wednesday, the Fed announced that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero and would continue to gradually taper its stimulative bond-buying program as the economy improves. No surprise there.

But the chatter for the Fed to stop coddling the economy really heated up Wednesday morning.

That was when a new government report showed that, after hitting a speed bump in the snowy first quarter, the economy really sped up between April and June. Gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 4.0% in the second quarter.

What’s more, the government went back and revised some of its estimates for prior quarters. Uncle Sam now believes the economy grew well above the normal 3% rate in three out of the past four quarters.

“With this morning’s GDP release,” says James Paulsen, chief investment strategist and economist at Wells Capital Management, the “is-the-Fed-behind-the-curve fears among investors are increasingly evident.”

The GDP report included preliminary measures of inflation that might not sit well with Wall Street’s inflation hawks.

In the second quarter, the so-called personal consumption expenditure index, which is the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, grew 2.3%. If you strip out volatile food and energy costs, core PCE still rose 2%. UBS economist Maury Harris notes that this represents a big jump from the 1.2% pace of core inflation in the first quarter. Plus, 2% is the target that the Fed has openly set for inflation.

While the actual level of inflation today may not be so worrisome, the ability to fight inflation after the fact is, says Guy LeBas, chief fixed-income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. “The challenge with inflation is that there’s a very long lag between policy and price pressures, so a Fed concerned with inflation 12 to 24 months down the road needs to start acting now to protect against the prospect.”

Three years ago, the Fed drew another line in the sand. The Fed back then said that it would not think about raising rates until the national unemployment rate fell to 6.5%. Back then, policy makers thought that this would not transpire until around 2015. However, the unemployment rate fell below this level in April and is threatening to fall below 6%.

US Unemployment Rate Chart

US Unemployment Rate data by YCharts

In recent months, as the Fed has tried to explain why it won’t hike rates soon despite rising inflation and falling unemployment, Yellen introduced a new reason altogether: housing.

In mid July, in a monetary policy report delivered to Congress, Yellen said:

The housing sector has shown little recent progress. While it has recovered notably from its earlier trough, activity in the sector leveled off in the wake of last year’s increase in mortgage rates, and readings this year have, overall, continued to be disappointing.

Later on in the report, Yellen noted that the lack of traction in the housing sector is probably preventing the labor market from reaching its full potential:

Even after rising noticeably in 2012 and the first half of 2013, real residential investment remains 45 percent below its pre-recession peak. The lack of a rapid housing recovery has also affected the labor market: Employment in the construction sector is still more than 1.6 million lower than the average level in 2006.

In announcing its rate decision on Wednesday, the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee reiterated that while economic growth in general appears to be returning, “the recovery in the housing sector remains slow.”

The irony is that the two things that are likely to get the housing market on track are low mortgage rates and an improving job market.

To achieve the latter, the Fed is keeping rates low. Yet to achieve the former, the Fed needs to show the bond market that it is serious about combatting inflation. And the worst way to do that is keep rates low.

There, in a nutshell, is Janet Yellen’s conundrum.

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