That "wall of worry" on which the stock market rises is getting pretty tall these days. Robert Shiller's column in the New York Times discusses the extent to which there is a lot of uncertainty even though life is good for many people.
The various consumer confidence indices are now as high as they were in 2004, but before we get excited about this good news, note that consumer confidence is not a forward indicator of any consequence. The Institute of Trend Research once pointed out that a rise in the confidence index only meant good news for the sellers of used boats.
In spite of the rising tide of the economy raising all the boats (new and used), the improved consumer confidence surveys may just reflect people who are laughing on the outside, but crying on the inside.
Shiller points out that the huge amount of money in savings accounts is a sign of uncertainty. Not only are people investing in money market and savings accounts that pay nothing, but they are also investing in 10-year treasury bills that pay at a record low of about 2 percent. This says something about what they think the future will bring, namely, a world like something out of Mel Gibson's "The Road Warrior." But on the flip side, it explains why long-term mortgage rates can be so low. Because they want to know that they have something stashed away for sure, there is plenty of long-term money available from people who expect to earn next to nothing -- people, in fact, who are actually losing 2.5 percent per year to inflation on their zero-return savings.
Those who think the low rates are a product of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing or bond buying efforts should consider the fact that the Fed's activities stopped back in October and rates have fallen since then. The perception that the Fed doesn't matter may be just another reason for why people are anxious. It's like, "What happened to adult supervision?"
Meanwhile, the cost of borrowing money is the most powerful engine influencing corporate profits. Beyond its value to companies, a low-interest environment also makes it possible for people to pay more for houses and to buy more consumer goods. As an example, almost every car on the freeway these days looks brand new to me.
Having no place to just save with meaningful results leaves only the option of investing -- which, in comparison to saving, entails taking risk. In general terms, the opportunities to invest are not increasing. Because of mergers and buybacks, the amount of available stock is decreasing, which makes what's left that much more valuable. Add to that the record-setting profitable recent years in corporate America. Stocks are expensive based upon historical price/earnings norms, but where else can we go? Meanwhile, anytime our choices are limited, being boxed in just contributes to our anxiety level -- sending it up a notch.
What I don't understand is why so many people invest in savings accounts and money market funds when they could invest in bonds or bond funds and earn at least something. This would go a long way to reducing some of the anxiety attributable to the frustration of realizing that cash is going backward. There are bond funds whose bonds all mature on a specific date, so principal will be intact regardless of what fluctuations take place between now and the chosen fund's ending date.
Stock funds that invest in stocks with 3 percent annual dividend yields do exist, so regardless of what the market value might be, the dividend flow will continue to offer some sense of smug satisfaction -- which should relieve some anxiety.
Anxiety, of course, is the enemy of rational thinking. Insight into how we think about money in the face of what may become adversity sooner or later can be found in books like Shiller's "Irrational Exuberance" or Gary Belsky's "Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes." This might be a time to read one or both of these classics to get a handle on how we may best respond to what's on the other side of that wall (of worry).