The Economic Costs of Fear

BERKELEY – The S&P stock index now yields a 7% real (inflation-adjusted) return. By contrast, the annual real interest rate on the five-year United States Treasury Inflation-Protected Security (TIPS) is -1.02%. Yes, there is a “minus” sign in front of that: if you buy the five-year TIPS, each year over the next five years the US Treasury will pay you in interest the past year’s consumer inflation rate minus 1.02%. Even the annual real interest rate on the 30-year TIPS is only 0.63% – and you run a large risk that its value will decline at some point over the next generation, implying a big loss if you need to sell it before maturity.

So, imagine that you invest $10,000 in the S&P index. This year, your share of the profits made by those companies will be $700. Now, imagine that, of that total, the companies pay out $250 in dividends (which you reinvest to buy more stock) and retain $450 in earnings to reinvest in their businesses. If the companies’ managers do their job, that reinvestment will boost the value of your shares to $10,450. Add to that the $250 of newly-bought shares, and next year the portfolio will be worth $10,700 – more if stock-market valuations rise, and less if they fall.