The received wisdom among economists is that the US’s historical low interests rates are driven by high savings by aging boomers who are getting ready for, or in, retirement.
The idea is boomers have salted away so much cash that banks don’t bid for their savings, so interest rates fall.
But at last week’s Jackson Hole conference, a trio of economists presented a very different explanation for low interest, one that better fits the facts.
So we can’t really say that low interest rates are being caused by an aging population with high retirement savings, because while the US population is aging, it does not have high savings. Quite the contrary.
And, as Robert Armstrong points out in his analysis of the paper for the Financial Times, even in places like Japan, with large cohorts of retirees and near-retirees who do have adequate savings, rates are scraping bottom.
So why are rates so low? Well, the paper says it is being caused by high levels of savings — just not aging boomers’ savings. Rather, it’s the savings of the ultra-wealthy, the 1%, who are sitting on mountains of unproductive capital, chasing returns.
The U.S. population grew 7% between 2010 and 2020, according to census results. The age breakdown isn’t yet available, but a smaller sample by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the working-age population — those 16 to 64 — grew just 3.3%. Because the share of those people working or looking for work has shrunk, the working-age labor force grew only 2%, and actually shrank last year. Some of those missing workers will return when the virus recedes. But many won’t: Baby boomer retirements have soared.
Reversing this move would require either a dramatic increase in births, which has eluded countries with more-family-friendly policies, or immigration, which is politically hard.
The demographic squeeze is far more severe in China, which admits almost no immigrants and for years limited families to one child. Tuesday, authorities said the population in China had grown just 5.4% in the past decade. The working-age population — those 15 to 59 — shrank 5%, or roughly 45 million people. When worker shortages began emerging over a decade ago, factories began moving to poorer inland provinces and then cheaper countries including Vietnam. In recent years some indicators suggest jobs are getting harder to fill, though the data might not be nationally representative.
The labor force participation rate—the proportion of the population working or seeking work—for Americans age 55 and older has fallen from 40.3% in February of 2020 to 38.3% this February—representing a loss of 1.45 million people from the labor force.
The participation rate initially fell much more for prime-age workers, those between ages 25 and 54, from 82.9% in February last year to 79.8% in April, but has since jumped 1.3 points, to 81.1% in February of this year. By contrast, participation for older workers has shown no rebound from last spring.
Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, said the unique health risk to older people during the pandemic has likely deterred them from rejoining the workforce in greater numbers. Public-health officials have warned that the risk of severe illness from Covid-19 increases with age. Among those who contract the virus, the death rate for those age 50-64 is nearly nine times that of those age 30-39, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.