A look at four years of a zero-rate policy

(MoneyWatch) In November 2008, the interest rate on one-month Treasury bills fell to less than 0.10 percent. Thus, we're now approaching four full years of the Federal Reserve's "zero interest rate" policy. The fact that the policy has been in place for so long has been a surprise to most economists and investors alike, especially for investors who have been sitting on cash waiting for rates to rise. Despite low interest rates and a plethora of other bad news, the markets have fared well since then.

The same month, the S&P 500 Index hit of low of 741. (It would hit its lowest point of the recession at 667 on March 6, 2009.) Let's take a look at some of the things that happened since then. Having perspective and knowing your financial history helps you become a better investor.

S&P 500 returns

In 2009, the economy dipped into a recession, and we've had the slowest economic recovery in the post-war era. Despite the slow U.S. recovery, high unemployment, the European financial crisis and dramatic slowdowns in growth in the emerging market countries, the S&P 500 is now over 1,400 -- an increase from the March 2009 low, not even counting the return from dividends, of more than 100 percent. Unfortunately, many investors missed out on the rally as there was a flight of hundreds of billions of dollars out of equity mutual funds.

Bond yields

In November 2008, the 10-year Treasury yield fell to below 3 percent. Defying the predictions of most forecasters, the 10-year Treasury is now trading at around 1.65 percent, well below even the 2.30 level we saw as recently as April 2012. The closing low yield was 1.43 percent on July 25, 2012. And it's worth remembering that it was yielding as high as 3.75 percent on Feb. 8, 2011.

Recall that all this occurred despite the U.S. Treasury losing its precious AAA credit rating in August 2011. Here too, many investors missed not only the rally because they were sure rates couldn't go lower, but they have also been faced with the problem of how to reinvest the proceeds of their bond investments that have matured over the past four years.

It's been said that experience is the best teacher. However, that only works if you learn from your mistakes. If you've missed the stock and bond rallies of the past four years or failed to adhere to your investment plan because you panicked and sold, it's not too late to learn. Even smart people make mistakes. They just don't repeat the same ones. However, to learn from your mistakes you must first admit them -- something that's very hard for many, if not most, to do.

Image courtesy of Flickr user 401(K) 2012.

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    Larry Swedroe is director of research for The BAM Alliance. He has authored or co-authored 13 books, including his most recent, Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett. His opinions and comments expressed on this site are his own and may not accurately reflect those of the firm.