NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's not uncommon for today's employees to feel as though they'll work until the day they die. Thanks to the Fed, that could be reality for much of the American workforce.
According to the new 2015 Life and Money survey released by GOBankingRates, one in five respondents identified "planning for retirement" as their biggest financial challenge. Some 16% of Americans said their biggest fear was never being able to retire, at all.
This data is not surprising. Monetary policy over the last seven years has motivated borrowers while punishing savers. The Federal Funds rate has hovered between 0% and 0.25% since December 2008, making debt alluringly cheap. On the other hand, sources of safe, fixed interest income such as savings and CD accounts have become negative-return investments once inflation is factored in.
Why The Fed Doesn't Want You To Retire
If it seems as though the Federal Reserve is discouraging Americans from retiring, you're right.
One of the major goals behind keeping rates down is encouraging spending and spurring economic growth following the Great Recession. Our national income to support domestic GDP could drop significantly if a large number of people retired. "The more people who work, the more money they have," said Dr. Paul Morrow, assistant professor at Husson University's College of Business in Bangor, Maine. "The more money they have, the more money they spend,"
Hoarding cash with the goal of permanently exiting the workforce contradicts everything the Fed wants to accomplish.
When Will Interest Rates Rise?
That said, the Fed presumably can't keep interest rates at near-zero forever -- though experts have been predicting a rate hike for a long time.
"The rate hike is becoming something like the Great Pumpkin from the Peanuts cartoons ... higher interest rates from the Fed are out there somewhere, but never quite seem to materialize, no matter how patiently we wait," said Lawrence Solomon, a CFP and Director of Investments and Financial Planning at OptiFour Integrated Wealth Management. Like many, however, he expects interest rates will finally go up sometime in the fourth quarter of this year or early first quarter 2016.
The longer we're all held in interest rate limbo, the more unpredictable -- and dramatic -- the results of a rate hike will likely be on markets and American's finances. Unfortunately, no one can say with certainty whether the effects will be mostly positive or negative until it happens. For those who hope to retire some day, that uncertainty is disconcerting at best.
To be sure, some observers of the monetary policy say that a rate hike will be beneficial. "I actually believe that a rate hike will be well-received by the market, as it has been much anticipated," said Dr. Robert R. Johnson, President and CEO of The American College of Financial Services. "The market is suffering from Fed fatigue, and a rate hike would eliminate any uncertainty that market participants have with respect to the Fed. One investment truism that seems universal is that markets abhor uncertainty."
In anticipation of rising rates, there are a few steps future retirees can take to preserve their wealth.
"Investors would be well served to do some sector rotation in their portfolios," Johnson said. He recommended selling some stocks from industries that perform well during falling rate environments, such as apparel, retail, construction, durable goods and autos, and buying stocks in industries that perform well during rising rate environments, such as energy, consumer goods, utilities, food and steel products.
In the long-run, however, Johnson advised investors to temper their expectations in a rising interest rate environment, as returns on equities will be lower in general.
Investors should get out of bonds and look for other safe, secure options to protect their money, said Michael Foguth, president and founder of financial services firm Foguth Financial Group in Howell, Mich. "History shows when interest rates go up, bond values go down. Most people use bonds for safe money -- when interest rates go up, bonds will no longer hold the title of safe."
Increasing the fed funds rate directly affects how much it costs banks to borrow from each other. The direct effect for consumers will be that the cost to borrow will increase. "If you have a variable rate mortgage loan or are in the market to borrow money for a large purchase, the fed rate hike will make borrowing slightly more expensive," said Kyle Winkfield, managing partner at Englewood, Colo.-based O'Dell, Winkfield, Roseman & Shipp, which provides retirement financial services. Borrowers should either lock in today's low rates, or work to eliminate potentially expensive debt that could eat at future retirement savings.