All of us have had plenty to say about high interest rates, and what they're doing to the economy. But how about the effect they are having on us as individuals? They seem to be turning us into a nation of interest-rate scroungers, grubbily searching for the top dollar yield on savings accounts.
Around my community pool this summer, those who used to chatter about stocks or maybe gold coins instead were talking knowledgeably about Treasury bills, money-market funds and the "All-Saver certificate stuffed into the tax bill by the powerful thrift industry lobby. IRA also was getting a lot of attention. That isn't the new lifeguard: it stands for a slick new loophole, "Individual Retirement Accounts," that will enable most employed heads of families to set up a nice little tax shelter worth $2,250 a year.
It's easy to understand the incentive to save a tax dollar in an era of inflation, especially when one sees the fantastic tax benefits that have been donated by the Reagan administration and Congress to upper-bracket individuals and to corporations.
Under the new tax law, for example, businesses that have failed the test of the free-enterprise system, incurring massive losses, can transform their red ink into a profit. They swap or "lease" the losses for cash to profitable companies that can use losses to offset their tax liability.
So with the tax syste getting less instead of more equitable, it's not surprising that we all are seeking to become legal tax-dodgers. Harry Truman, one of the wisest of our presidents, used to say that "the most sensitive nerve in the body is the pocketbook nerve." He was right: those nerve endings are being assaulted by a barrage of newspaper ads -- some of them at least partially misleading -- claiming big, better and best interest rates.
"Twenty-five Percent Annual Rate and $2,000 Tax-Free Interest," promised a Washington area savings and loan association. And in New York, a hard-pressed mutual savings bank offered 35 percent interest for the period between now and Oct. 1.
But on Aug. 30, some banks abandoned (or stopped advertising) the bonus plan after the IRS expressed substantial doubt that the tax-free savings incentives contained in the new tax law would apply to the high-interest investment packages that the banks were offering. (A final IRS ruling is expected soon.)
The big push at the moment is for the "All-Savers" certificates, a gimmick devised by the S&Ls and adopted by a gutless Congress and Administration. The idea is to funnel savings into the depressed thrift industry, by allowing the sale -- beginning Oct. 1 -- of a 12-month certificate at 70 percent of the market rate, with up to $2,000 in interest going tax-free.
The institutions get the money cheap, and well-to-do savers get a tax break -- that's the essence of the idea. Who pays the bill? Among others, Uncle Sam, who loses $6 billion or $7 billion in tax revenue, and cities and states that will have to pay more to borrow money.
Like hungry dogs held at bay for a month, the savings institutions are trying to edge each other aside, offering bonuses to get an early lock on some of the $200 billion or more expected to be attracted by the tax-free status assigned these certificates.
The sleazy side of the advertising campaign soliciting these funds is two-fold: First, it is misleading to advertise sky-high returns that are payable for only about a month; second, the ads do not usually mention the fact that the misnamed "All-Savers" (they should be called "Rich Savers") certificates do not benefit taxpayers in the lower-and middle-income brackets. It is a straightaway gift for anyone earning above $40,000 a year. At that level, the investor simply cannot lose. But the way the numbers work below that income level, the saver would do better to invest in something else and pay his tax on the profits.
Savers should take an especially hard look at some state institutions that dangle big interest-rate numbers -- ranging close to 20 percent -- purporting to be competitive with the money-market mutual funds. In contrast to the real money-market funds many of these S&Ls have highly illiquid assets in the form of mortgages written years ago at very low interest rates. Their solicitation of deposits at extraordinarily high interest rates, at a time when some of them may already be skating on thin ice, is a questionable practice that ought to be troubling conscientious state administrators and regulators.