Hard Times Bring Difficult Questions
-Finding a return worth investing in makes one wonder if it’s overrated-
By Scott Burns, Houston Chronicle
Here’s a deeply rude question: Should we stop investing?
I’m serious. Under current conditions, saving and investing are worse than frustrating. It isn’t worthwhile. There must be better uses for our money than investing in stocks, bonds or money market funds.
Yes, I know: This is close to blasphemy on the financial pages of a daily newspaper. But that’s how it looks. There are thousands of investments out there. Most of them aren’t providing a decent return. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates is planning on giving his $3.2 billion dividend to charity. Let’s start by comparing four places to put our money: stocks, bonds, cash and objects. We’re going to consider total returns and the impact of taxes and inflation. When we do this, cash comes out worst. Stocks are a sorry best — but we’ll work our way up from the bottom.
Cash. This is the money we keep in money market mutual funds, Treasury bills and other highly liquid forms of investment. Right now, money market mutual funds yield about 1 percent. Many are earning less. The difference between 1 percent and one-half of 1 percent doesn’t mean much. Once your yield is pathetic, it’s pathetic all the way down. Taxing this yield could be the new definition of “adding insult to injury.” Assuming a 25 percent tax bracket, a 1 percent yield is down to 0.75 percent.
Bonds. We can do better than cash. All we have to do is buy bonds and take the risk that interest rates will rise. If they do, our return on bonds may well net to the return on cash, as it did for most investors over the last 12 months. (In the 12 months ending July 23, according to Morningstar, the average total return on PIMCO Total Return, Vanguard GNMA and Vanguard Total Bond Market funds — the three largest fixed-income taxable bond funds — was 2.98 percent. All three did better than their category averages.)
But let’s not worry. It’s pretty easy to get a 4 percent yield on an intermediate-term Treasury these days; we’ll go with that. After we pay income taxes, our 4 percent is down to 3 percent. That means our after-tax, after-inflation return is a loss of 0.9 percent — provided interest rates don’t rise.
Stuff. The sales force of the investment/retirement complex won’t tell you about this because it won’t put food on their tables, but buying canned food for our tables (and other stuff) is a pretty good use for money. If what we buy rises in price with the general rate of inflation and we still have it at the end of the year, you’ve broken even. We have no tax liability. Our “return” is 0.0 percent. True, the return won’t put us on the cover of Money magazine. But it beats bonds and cash.
Conclusion? It’s time for us to reset our investing habits. Except for savings dollars going into 401(k) plans where the employer matches our contributions, we need to look at other uses for the money we save.