We'll never know how many Ponzi schemes and other criminal activities revolving around investment fraud would have been uncovered in the past three years if the financial crisis had not sent investors scrambling to recoup their dwindling funds. Still, it is a safe bet that if equities had fallen by a relatively modest 20% in 2008, at least a few more bad guys would still be at large.
But what about interest rates at or near zero? The effect of this so-called financial repression on older Americans who have worked hard, saved their money and basically done everything right has been devastating.
Last month, the North American Securities Administrators Association told the Wall Street Journal that state regulators initiated 1,241 actions, such as criminal complaints and cease-and-desist orders, involving alleged investment fraud targeting folks over 50 in 2010, up from 506 in 2009. The story quoted Mary Schapiro, chairman of the SEC, saying her agency planned to issue warnings about potential scams exploiting older Americans.
As an editor who has covered financial advice and personal finance for more than two decades, I must confess to being dismayed at the explosion in the number of investment fraud cases since the Great Recession began. Even a somewhat jaded observer like myself has been dumbstruck by the sheer volume of cases that seem to crop up every week.
The Fed has made no secret of the fact that one goal of its easy money policy is to seduce investors into allocating more of their money in riskier assets as part of its effort to jumpstart the moribund economy. While that policy has succeeded in the first part of its goal-as witnessed by the rallied in equities and commodities since their lows in 2009-the follow-through in the real economy has been slow to take hold.
As always, the counterfactual argument that the economic recovery would have been even more anemic without the extreme policies of central banks is unanswerable. But many argue that the primary beneficiaries of the Fed's financial repression strategy have been commodity producers and big equity investors, while middle-class Americans have seen their spending power curbed by higher gas and food prices.
After listening to a presentation in 2004 by the late financial writer Peter Bernstein at a JP Morgan Wealth Management meeting, I came away with a new respect for dividend-paying equities as a retirement staple. Bernstein recalled entering his father's advisory business in about 1950, more than 20 years after the Great Crash and discovering the firm had many affluent clients who lived off their dividends. So lingering were the memories of the 1930s that few expected much capital appreciation, but equities were yielding more than bonds, a phenomenon that resurfaced recently after almost 50 years.
But that's me. Most retirees psychologically and emotionally need to allocate a major chunk of their assets to something with a quasi-stable value. And while dividend-paying stocks are all the latest rage, many current retirees went into 2008 overweighted in bank stocks and watched a large portion of their life savings get vaporized.
So my question is twofold. First, if the Fed were to set interest rates at a level closer to the 3% or so level of inflation the U.S. economy has experienced over the last year, would retired investors be better off? Undoubtedly.
Second, if the Fed were not trying to repress investors to flee into riskier assets, would there be as many cases of investment fraud? It's another counterfactual that is almost impossible to answer.
To be sure, if money market funds yielded 2% to 4%, they would attract more assets. But it is certainly not clear those yields would be sufficient to win over those investors flocking to investment scams promising 12% to 25% in "guaranteed" returns.