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Oct 17 2014

Let Them Eat Cake

According to the Fed's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances, the top 10% of U.S. families are doing just fine, and those in the bottom fifth are essentially being kept afloat by transfer payments; but the inflation-adjusted median family income has shrunk by one-eighth since 2004. Quite simply, middle-class incomes are being gutted.

[C]iting that same survey, Ms. Yellen expressed concern about "lower-income families without assets" that "can end up, very suddenly, off the road." She therefore advised families to "take the small steps that over time can lead to the accumulation of considerable assets." She did not, however, explain how they were to accumulate these assets, in light of falling incomes and zero interest rates.

This uncomfortable disconnect between theory and reality also came out during her Senate confirmation hearings last fall. Given the predicament of "the little person out there who is just trying to pay the bills and maybe put a buck away for retirement," Ms. Yellen was asked to "explain to the senior citizen who is just hoping that CD will earn some money" the impact of "a policy that says, for as far as the eye can see ... keep interest rates low." She replied: "I understand ... that savers are hurt by this policy, [but] savers wear a lot of different hats... They may be retirees who are hoping to get part-time work in order to supplement their income."

In essence, despite a zero interest rate policy that mainly helps the wealthy, struggling families with falling incomes ought to take steps to accumulate "considerable assets," as retirees take part-time jobs to make ends meet. Let them eat cake, indeed.

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