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If you're pining for the good old days before high inflation ruined your retirement, you may be missing the big picture. Government policy alone isn't to blame for Americans' need to fuel their retirements with ever-greater returns -- and ever-riskier investments.
Lawrence Pratt of the American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) argues that back in 1947, Americans were better off, investing more "safely" in savings accounts, bonds, and cookie jars. He laments the "relentless erosion in the purchasing power of the dollar" over the past decades, and suggests that today, many of us "speculate" in stocks because of government-generated inflation that has eroded 90% of the value of the dollar over the decades.
That doesn't ring entirely true to me. We had inflation before 1947. Yes, many years sported tiny inflation rates, but during and after times of war, inflation was often near or in the double-digits.
Don't blame the public sector
Investment options such as savings accounts and government bonds aren't much more valuable today than they were in the past. For much of the 1930s and 1940s, the prime rate was below 2%, and it's 3.25% today. Those rates won't help anyone build a big retirement nest egg. But decades ago, that didn't matter as much -- because many people had pensions to rely on.
Pensions have been disappearing in recent years, as company after company freezes or shrinks its retirement plans. Just a week ago, Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) announced that it was freezing its non-union pension, affecting 28,000 workers. It's being relatively generous with its 401(k), but that still offers no specific ultimate income stream to count on. Meanwhile, workers at an AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN ) plant in England are striking in protest of planned pension cuts. But even strikes aren't likely to slow the corporate shift from pensions to 401(k)s.
The only response
Most of us simply have to invest in the stock market, because it offers the kind of growth prospects we need over the long haul. It's not just that inflation is eroding our retirement money -- it's that our employers are no longer providing that retirement income, requiring us to build it ourselves instead.
That doesn't mean you have to gamble your future on pure speculation. It's true that over the short term, stocks can rise or fall dramatically. But over time, strong businesses can prove their worth to long-term investors.
Yes, most of us need to take on more risk in our investments these days. But that risk doesn't have to be crazy, nor can it entirely be blamed on inflation. It's simply that our retirements are now in our own hands.
Still pining for the good old days? Buy yourself a pension!