Father-son talks are always difficult, but it was time to teach my teenager about how things work. I dragged him to our local branch of Wells Fargo and opened a checking account with ATM card privileges and a savings account where he deposited his hard-earned umpiring cash. Having worked on Wall Street for 25 years, I stroked my chin and provided some sage advice: Checking accounts don’t pay interest, so keep your money in the savings account and just move it to checking when you need it. None other than Albert Einstein, I noted, said, “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”
His first bank statement showed interest income of $0.01—and a series of $35 fees for insufficient funds, wiping out all his money. I got a “You’re a financial genius, Dad,” dripping with sarcasm.
My son got ZIRPed. Senior citizens living on fixed incomes are getting ZIRPed. We all are. Since December 2008, when Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve started buying mortgage backed securities in order to “solve” the financial crisis, we have all been subject to a zero interest rate policy.
Banks were (and still are) sitting on piles of underwater mortgages. They can’t sell them at depressed prices, else they trigger losses and writedowns to their leveraged balance sheets and maybe—yikes—go bankrupt. The stock market knows this, which is why Bank of America shows $20 in book value (assets minus liabilities) on their balance sheet, but the stock is selling for under $11. Citigroup’s book value is $64, and the stock is $37. Better that banks had been stripped of these mortgages back in 2009 via temporary nationalization or good bank/bad bank splits. But no one had the courage, so instead we are subject to ZIRP, at least through mid-2015.