Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Great Shanking

The broad middle class is in bigger financial trouble all the time. For the short run - which raises the cost of borrowing to pay for that pillar of the American dream the family home - see an updated overview on the financial crisis after Swiss bank UBS announced another $19 billion in write-downs. If you're keeping score, see the chart at the left.

UBS's chairman stepped down, to be replaced by his former General Counsel. This looks a lot to me like replacing Tweedledum with Tweedledee. If it ain't, please explain.

Then there's the long run. The middle class these days is supposed to retire on its investment income. The private sector's defined-benefit pension system (where your income depended on a formula of age, years worked, final salary, etc. and not on market movements) has been almost converted to a defined-contribution system in about 25 years. Projections in the US and the UK suggest big retirement shortfalls coming up. Finance historian and practitioner Peter Bernstein offers a reason why. Though stocks are supposed to go up over 7% every year, in 1 of 5 years they go down, and "Nearly one in five of those 20-year spans produced real, or inflation-adjusted, total returns of less than 3 percent a year." So it's quite possible to have real returns of well below 7%. Add in the costs of buying and selling, normal management fee deductions, and bad timing, and your 401(k) rapidly becomes NOT like having a pension.

Bernstein talks about another detail that hugely matters.
Over the last 20 years, dividends have provided 39 percent of the total return.

But that was the past. Today, the dividend yield is only about 2 percent, compared with the long-run average of more than 4 percent since 1925. Achieving the long-run, inflation-adjusted annual return of 7 percent when starting with dividend yields of only 2 percent is a tough call, especially as earnings per share over that long run have grown more slowly than real gross domestic product, or only about 2 percent a year after inflation.

Wake up and check your pension! Whoops, never mind - you gave away pensions a decade or two ago. Wake up and sell the house! Well try to wait just five or ten more years, so prices can stop going down . . .

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