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Ten years of epic wealth destruction

Earlier this month was the tenth anniversary of the last time that the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee actually raised interest rates.
Seeking to cool the economy, it raised Bank Rate to 5.75% – a level many, many times higher than the 0.25% or 0.5% that we have now become accustomed to regarding as ‘normal’.
I prefer to focus on a different ten-year anniversary, though.
Next week, on July 17th, it will be the tenth anniversary of the day that soon-to-collapse Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns told investors that two of its sub-prime mortgage funds had imploded, and that their investments in them were essentially worthless. 


Three weeks later, on August 9th, the credit crunch began. The trigger: French bank BNP Paribas confessing that two of its own sub-prime funds were in trouble, as the market the underlying securities had effectively frozen.
The die was now cast – and soon, a whole series of retail banks, building societies, and investment banks hit the buffers, starting with Northern Rock in September.
So, on this side of the Atlantic, once-proud names such as Bradford & Bingley, Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays, and Halifax Bank of Scotland were brought low, to then be bailed out, or nationalised.
On Wall Street, beginning with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, the carnage was just as great.
Eventually, the Bank of England was forced to slash Bank Rate to 0.5% to try and rescue an economy that had sunk into the worst recession for three-quarters of a century.

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Stoozers and rate tarts

For investors, these were sobering times.
But investors today face a situation that is just as sobering, albeit not quite as dramatic.

Back in 2007, high rates of interest had tempted investors into any number of high-paying savings accounts – accounts offered not just by the High Street majors, but by popular incomers such as ING, or Iceland’s Landsbanki, which operated as Icesave in the UK.
And for savers prepared to lock their money up for a year or more, fixed-term accounts offered even higher returns.
For a brief time, a whole new vocabulary existed. “Rate tarts”, for instance, who jumped from account to account, chasing ever-higher returns. And “stoozers”, who borrowed money on credit card providers’ low introductory rates – and then banked it, earning interest.

Savings erosion

Today, not only has Bank Rate not risen from the unprecedented level of 0.5%, it’s since fallen further, to 0.25%, as an emergency measure following the Brexit referendum of last year.
In real, inflation-adjusted terms, bank and building society accounts are paying negative interest rates – meaning that the value of your savings is falling.
Some figures that I saw in the Financial Times the other day reckoned that consumer prices had risen by 19% since January 2009, just before the Bank of England cut Bank rate to 0.5%, while savings had delivered just a 4% return.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is wealth destruction, not wealth accumulation. And wealth destruction, what’s more, that is especially painful for people relying on those investment returns for their day to day expenses.

What about the stock market?

So how might investors have done in the stock market over such a period?
Let’s ignore what might have happened to individual shares, and simply examine the performance of the overall market – a low-cost FTSE 100 index tracker, for example.
At the time of writing, the FTSE Total Return index – that is, with dividends re-invested – stands at 6,130. At the market’s nadir in March 2009, when the FTSE 100 itself bottomed out at 3,512, the FTSE 100 Total Return index stood at 2,147.
So while cash savings have returned 4% since early 2009, the stock market has delivered 186%. That’s right: 186%.

Worst-case comparison

Ah, you say: that’s an increase from the market’s recessionary low point. So it’s bound to be a good return, innit?

Well, let’s re-do the figures, taking as our starting point the market’s 2007 peak instead – just before the credit crunch hit. On 15 June 2007, the market closed at 6,732, with the FTSE 100 Total Return index closing at 3,851.
On which basis, the total return over the period is still a very decent 59% – and several orders of magnitude greater than the return from cash savings.
All of which goes to show the power of stock market investing over the long term, especially with dividends being reinvested.

Savers’ gloom

The moral of all this? Simple: with interest rates at rock bottom levels, and – frankly – showing little sign of any significant uplift over the next few years, savers have seen wealth destruction of epic proportions, once inflation has been factored in.
Not so investors in the stock market – or at least, those who invest for the long term, and reinvest dividends.
Everybody needs some cash savings, as a source of liquidity, and to offer some diversification. But for wealth accumulation – as opposed to wealth destruction – cash these days is a very poor bet indeed.

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Malcolm Wheatley owns shares of Lloyds Banking Group. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Barclays and Lloyds Banking Group. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.