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As many of you may know, the Federal Reserve yesterday raised the interest rate it directly controls above an effective zero level for the first time in seven years. So it’s especially interesting and important that a post from The Economist just before the rate hike made a strong case that one of the main rationales for keeping interest rates so low has backfired big-time on ordinary Americans and on the consumer spending still driving most U.S. economic activity.

Just after the height of the financial crisis, the Fed lowered its so-called funds rate to zero (actually, it was a range of zero to 0.25 percent) in part to make sure that the carnage that was spreading from housing to Wall Street and increasingly to the rest of the economy wouldn’t scare households into closing their wallets,and therefore choke off even more growth. The federal funds rate doesn’t directly set consumer borrowing rates – it’s the rate offered by the central bank to the country’s biggest banks. But the Fed was hoping that super-easy money would have twin stimulative effects.

First, when these banks’ borrowing costs fall, they can offer cheaper loans to both consumer and business borrowers and stay just as profitable. And the more affordable credit becomes, the more borrowers were expected to use. Second, the Fed was hoping that super-low rates would penalize saving. A rock-bottom federal funds rate would drive way down the returns on such popular consumer savings vehicles as money market funds and certificates of deposit and savings bonds, and convince Americans that they were better off spending existing savings and incoming income rather than receive literally no reward for thriftiness.

The Economist, though, has argued that the Fed’s penalize-savings strategy was misbegotten. And it looks like it should have been obvious even then. As the magazine points out, the biggest reason Americans save is to ensure a comfortable retirement. For any retirees or those nearing that age who already have substantial savings, even very low-yielding assets can together spin off enough income to ensure the golden years living standards they want.

But then ask yourselves how many Americans were in this situation when the financial crisis and recession struck. Inflation-adjusted incomes for the typical household had been stagnating. Thrift became a forgotten virtue; in part because of those stagnant incomes and in part because perpetually rising home values were hyped as an acceptable substitute, the nation’s personal savings rate hit historic lows and in fact briefly fell below zero. Then, of course, home values began cratering and the stock market went into free fall. So safe but low-yielding assets looked like the only viable savings game in town.

Unfortunately, the lower the return, the bigger the pot needed to guarantee that comfortable retirement. As a result, more and more of the aging American population has felt greater and greater pressure to salt away any new income not needed to cover ongoing living expenses.

Nor do you need to take The Economist‘s analysis on faith. For nothing has been clearer during this weak economic recovery than the continued consumer caution so responsible for holding it back. Many analysts attribute this behavior to a simple – possibly excessive – “once burned-twice shy” fear. But The Economist‘s treatment at least points to another important factor: For Americans with stagnant incomes and meager liquid savings – along with continuing debt – returning to pre-crisis and recession-level spending simply hasn’t been an option. In fact, evidence is accumulating that growing numbers of seniors, including recently retired baby boomers, are feeling these pressures, too – especially on the debt front.

Not that the Fed’s quarter-point rate hike will change matters much. In fact, signs haven’t even appeared yet that it’s a step in the right direction, as those banks that have raised the rates they’re charging for borrowers haven’t raised those that they’re paying to depositors. Until rates rise high enough to reward savings significantly again, most Americans will have ample reason to view recent Fed policies as lose-lose propositions.

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