This week, the eyes of the stock market (and thus the eyes of those of us with 401(k) investments in that stock market) will turn to the meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee—that special subset of the Federal Reserve that determines short-term monetary policy for the nation. The Fed has long—and understandably—been on the alert for signs that inflation might rear its ugly head. Those of us who lived through the 1970s can remember all too well the relentless pressure of wages unable to keep up with prices—and can appreciate the vigilance of the Fed in seeking to keep inflation under control.
In fact, for some time now, the Fed has moved preemptively to head off inflation, or so it claims. But anyone who has actually gone out and bought such basic household necessities as food or gasoline is well aware that the costs of living are climbing rapidly. We may well enjoy a sense of growing wealth as we watch housing prices soar (or did until recently)—but there’s a greater likelihood that you’ve paid dearly for those paper gains in terms of higher property taxes than that you have been able to capitalize on those trends.
Of course the Fed—which is, after all, seeking stability in monetary policy as well as economic growth—deliberately ignores some of the more volatile costs in its evaluation of inflation; notably food and energy.
Still, for those of us who pay to live in the real world, it certainly feels as though inflation—defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a persistent increase in the level of consumer prices or a persistent decline in the purchasing power of money, caused by an increase in available currency and credit beyond the proportion of available goods and services’—is alive and well. Little wonder that Social Security recipients wait anxiously each year to find out how much their annual stipend will be adjusted for a “cost-of-living’ increase.
However, unlike Social Security, there is no annual cost-of-living “adjustment’ for retirement savings—no systematic means by which those accumulated savings are increased to offset the increased costs of things like heating fuel, food, and medicine. Ironically, should the Fed detect the insidious signs of inflation, their response would likely be to increase short-term interest rates—a move that, in all likelihood, would result in a drop in stock prices (and retirement savings accounts).
It’s an issue of more than passing significance for retirement savers, of course. After all, managing to replace a targeted amount of preretirement income is of little consequence if, 10 years on, that amount isn’t sufficient to provide for life’s necessities. To their credit, most retirement savings calculators retain an inflation assumption that can help those future projections reflect potential realities. Those cost-of-living numbers probably understate the increase in things like health care and fuel oil (they may, of course, overstate the rate of increase in other items). Worse, those adjustments frequently serve to project a certain annual rate of pay (and deferral) increase that, for a growing number of American workers, is no more than a quaint anachronism.
Whatever the Fed manages to say about inflation this week, retirement savers should be mindful of the reality that the future frequently costs more than the past—but we only have the present to prepare.