Courtesy of Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds
You've probably seen articles and adverts discussing how much money you'll need to "retire comfortably." The trick of course is the definition of comfortable. The general idea of comfortable (as I understand it) appears to be an income which enables the retiree to enjoy leisurely vacations on cruise ships, own a well-appointed RV for tooling around the countryside, and spend as much time on the golf links as he/she wants.
Needless to say, Social Security isn't going to fund a comfortable retirement, unless the definition is watching TV with an box of kibbles to snack on.
By this definition of retiring comfortably, I should be able to retire at age 91–assuming I can work another 30 years and the creek don't rise.
Since I earned my first real Corporate America paycheck at 16 in 1970 (summer job for Dole Pineapple), I've logged 45 years of work. Now if I'd been smart and worked for the government, I could have retired 15 years ago with generous pension and healthcare benefits for life.
But alas, I wasn't smart, so here I am, a self-employed numbskull.
The articles and adverts usually suggest piling up a hefty nestegg to fund a comfortable retirement. As near as I can make out, the nestegg should be around $2.6 million–or maybe it's $26 million. Let's just say it's a lot.
This presents retirees without generous government pensions two basic problems. One is making enough money to pay the bills of survival and set aside the two million or whatever the number is to retire comfortably.
The average full-time earned income in the U.S. is around $50,000, depending on how the statistics are massaged. At this income, the worker would need to to save every dime for 40 years to assemble the nestegg. This isn't practical (unless you inherit a trust fund, in which case you don't have to bother with earned income).
The magic solution is unearned income, i.e. dividends, interest, capital gains on investments, etc. If the worker aiming for that comfortable retirement holds his/her retirement nestegg in high-yielding investments, the nestegg will grow over time to the sky — the $2 million needed to retire comfortably will accrue.
This raises the second problem: identifying those magical high-yielding investments that won't suddenly turn to dust when the long-awaited retirement approaches.
In the good old days, plain old savings earned 5.25% annually by federal law. Buying a house was not a way to get rich quick, it was more like a forced savings plan, as over time real estate earned about 1% above the core inflation rate.
But all the safe ways of gaining earned income have been eradicated by the Federal Reserve. As I described in The Fed's Solution to Income Stagnation: Make Everyone a Speculator (January 24, 2014), the status quo "fix" for economic stagnation was to financialize the U.S. economy. What this means on the ground is eliminate safe returns and make everyone a speculator in high-risk, high-yield financial games.
The essence of financialization is turning debt into a tradeable security that can be leveraged into speculative pyramids. If I loan you $100,000 to buy a house, that loan is called a mortgage. The collateral for the mortgage is the property. In the pre-financialization era, I held the mortgage to maturity (30 years) and collected the interest and principal. This trickle of earnings from interest was the entire yield on the loan.
In the securitized economy, I divide the loan into tranches that are sold to investors like stocks and bonds. I can "cash out" my entire gain in the present, and then sell derivatives on the securitized debt as a form of "portfolio insurance" to other buyers.
Clever financiers can pyramid security on security and debt on debt, all collateralized by debt on one property.
This enables the generation of vast profits not from producing goods and services but from financial churning. The more debt I underwrite, the more I can securitize and the more debt instruments I can conjure out of thin air.
The key dynamic of speculative financialization is that pyramiding credit expansions lead to bubbles which eventually pop, wiping out the phantom wealth created by the bubble.
In effect, the central bank/state's policies of low interest rates, easy money and limitless liquidity sought to compensate for the decline of real income by generating speculative income on a vast scale.
The problem is that speculative financialization only benefits speculators with access to nearly free money and the securitization markets–Wall Street financiers, corporate raiders, hedge funds and other financial Elites. These Elites pocketed immense fortunes but very little of this wealth trickled down to households for the simple reason that there is no mechanism for such a transfer except taxes–and this mechanism is controlled by the central state, which is easily influenced by wealth (campaign contributions, lobbying, etc.)
The Federal Reserve's solution to stagnating household income was to make every homeowner into a speculator. The Great Housing Bubble of the 2000s was the perfection of this strategy: as every home in the nation was floating higher in valuation as the result of an enormous credit/financialization bubble, homeowners were granted a form of "free income" via home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) and second mortgages.
That this increase in home equity was a form of phantom wealth that would necessarily vanish was not advertised as being an intrinsic feature of the solution.
In the wake of the implosion of the housing bubble, the Fed sought to repeat the exact same strategy of inflating speculative bubbles in widely held assets: stocks, bonds and real estate.
So anyone assembling a nestegg for retirement is gambling that the bubbles don't all pop before he/she cashes out. If the bubbles keep inflating steadily for another decade, making assets ever-more richly valued and unaffordable to anyone who isn't using leverage to buy them, then maybe I could retire after only 55 years of work at age 71.
But what are the chances that monumental bubbles in stocks, bonds and real estate will continue inflating for another decade? Most gigantic asset bubbles pop after five years of expansion. The current bubbles are in Year 6 of their speculative expansion, and it seems highly unlikely that they will be the only bubbles in the history of humanity to never pop.
If the current bubbles follow the pattern of all other speculative credit-driven bubbles, they will pop, without much warning and with devastating consequences for all those who believed the bubbles couldn't possibly pop. In that case, it looks like I'll need to work another 30 years, logging 75 years of labor before I can retire comfortably at 91.
My advice is to focus not on retiring comfortably, but on working comfortably. Line up work you enjoy that can be performed in old age. That's a much safer bet than counting on the serial bubble-blowing machinery of the Fed to keep inflating speculative bubbles that magically never pop.