There have been a lot of predictions from professionals lately about what kind of returns we can expect on our investments, and it doesn’t look good. In June PIMCO bond guru Bill Gross announced at the Morningstar conference (and subsequently to almost every media outlet in existence) that a close-to-zero interest rate was the “new neutral.” Gross envisions a market where bonds return just 3% to 4% a year on average, while stocks return a modest 4% to 5%.
Gross’s forecast echoes that of a number of other investment experts, including Ray Dalio, the head of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, who called this post-Recession era we are in “the boring years,” during which investors are likely to earn returns of just 3% for bonds and 4% for equities.
These low-return predictions are based, in part, on diminished expectations for the U.S. economy, with the IMF recently warning that our GDP growth may get stuck at 2% for the long term unless Washington adopts significant reforms.
A 4% return would be a huge decline from the historical performance of the U.S. stock market, which has earned an average annual 10% over the last 40 years. Many financial planners still use 8% to 10% as the expected return for stocks in 401(k)s and other investment portfolios. All of which presents a real predicament for those of us in the middle of our careers who have been assuming strong growth will carry us over the finish line.
You see, the real benefit of starting to invest early, the reason people in their 20s are exhorted to open retirement accounts, has always been the power of compounding in the last 10 or so years of a 40 year horizon—the hockey stick uptick on a line graph. But in order to experience that exhilarating growth curve, you need to earn an average annual return in the high single digits, not the low single digits. Compounding simply doesn’t have as much power if you start off earning 10% for 20 years and then earn only 4% for the second 20 years.
If these predictions come true—and I hope that they won’t—it will be much more difficult to make money off of money in the future. This will impact just about everybody age 40 or older: current retirees and people living off fixed incomes, those hoping to retire in five to ten years, and those in mid-career who will need to rethink their strategy moving forward.
The only real solution, as far as I can tell, is to save more and spend less. You can try to earn more, but another strange feature of this recovery-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-recovery is that while unemployment has dropped, wages have remained stagnant. Besides, depending on your tax bracket, you would have to earn a lot more to get to the same amount after taxes that you could put aside by saving.
So while the investment pundits are making their predictions and coining their phrases, allow me to offer my own: we may now be entering the era of the New Frugal. After three decades of a declining personal savings rate, from 10% in the 1970s to 1% in the 2000s, the financial crisis of 2008 brought savings back up above 5% where it continues to hover. My prediction is that if stock market returns become stagnant, we might continue to see a reduction in consumption and an increase in savings.
What this all means for the economy as a whole I will leave to the experts to ponder. All I know is that if I can no longer expect a 10% average annual return on my retirement fund, I’m going to be a heck of a lot more conservative about how much I spend.