Conventional wisdom suggests that monetary stimulus is particularly bad for senior citizens: When the Federal Reserve holds interest rates low, retirees tend to get less income from their nest eggs. Over the past eight years, though, they’ve done a lot better than this simple logic would imply.
Consider the amount of goods and services that seniors consume — an important indicator of their well-being. According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, the average household headed by someone aged 65 or older consumed 5 percent more in 2014 than in 2007, adjusted for inflation. That compares to declines of 5 percent for all households and 7 percent for households headed by someone aged 35 to 44.
Averages, of course, can be driven by a small number of households. That said, the apparent rise in seniors’ consumption mirrors an increase in median pre-tax income: Families headed by someone aged 65 to 74 saw an inflation-adjusted gain of about 5 percent from 2007 to 2013, according to the most recent (2014) version of the triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. For families headed by someone aged 75 and over, the increase was 10 percent. By contrast, families headed by people aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 suffered declines of 4 percent and 17 percent, respectively.
If low interest rates have posed a challenge for seniors, why then have they done relatively well in terms of consumption and income? I can think of at least four reasons:
- The disappointingly slow wage and employment growth of the past decade has had less impact on seniors than on younger folks.
- Seniors’ Social-Security income rises with inflation, maintaining their purchasing power. It doesn’t, however, decline when prices fall — a feature from which they profited (modestly) last year.
- Many seniors own annuities or bonds that provide them with fixed payments. Because inflation has been surprisingly low, they’ve gotten more purchasing power from these fixed payments than they could have expected.
- Seniors hold more assets like stocks, bonds, and homes than do younger folks. All of these assets have appreciated a lot over the past seven years, providing seniors with a source of spending money that offsets some of the effect of low interest rates.
All this suggests that the Fed’s policies over the past seven years have actually favored seniors. After all, we should assess the appropriateness of monetary policy in terms of macroeconomic outcomes, not in terms of the level of interest rates. And when we judge by outcomes, we have to conclude that monetary policy has not been appropriate for the economy as a whole, because inflation and employment have been too low. Unduly tight monetary policy has systematically shifted the distribution of resources toward people who are not working and who receive payments that are, in large part, not indexed to inflation — that is, toward retirees.
The tilt of monetary policy toward seniors makes a sort of political sense. I suspect that most Fed policymakers receive relatively little input on the economy from people who are younger than 40 (this was certainly true for me when I worked there). There is also pressure from Congress for the Fed to make choices that favor seniors, as suggested by the questions legislators pose to Chair Janet Yellen.
The aging of the population will be a defining characteristic of the U.S. economy for decades to come. This will probably increase the pressure on the Fed to make monetary policy choices that lead to unduly low inflation and employment. If they want the economy to achieve its full potential, policy makers must resist.