The math of what happens when assumed rates of return go down, driven by a pro-active ZIRP from the Fed, is pretty straightforward. To make up for this, PIMCO notes that those approaching retirement have three choices:
a) save more
b) work longer
c) tighten their belts in retirement
Each of these are clear, individual family choices, but what happens when the whole of society is faced with the same dilemma? What works for one household can be grossly sub-optimal for society.
For now, let us assume that Americans would reject the idea of pre-commitment to significant future belt tightening. They may find that when they get to retirement they have little choice, but this is not something it seems they would rationally choose before having to do so.
If everyone saves more, we consume less, and therefore GDP growth slows down. Anemic growth leads to a Fed on hold for a prolonged period. If expectations for how long the Fed will be on hold are extended, low interest rates – particularly real ones – are the end result.
Given that the personal savings rate is a low 4.2%, significantly below the 6.9% average over the past 50 years, it is hard to argue that we are experiencing the paradox of thrift – at least not yet. We believe that there is a distinct wedge between households’ desired savings and actual savings driven by budget constraints. Less explored is the linkage between “working longer” and interest rates. The right side of Figure 1 shows a possible feedback loop for that cycle – which has the same end result as the Paradox of Thrift, but gets there through a different mechanism.