The Economic Damage Caused by Very Low Interest Rates

 

As is well known, the Federal Reserve’s main tool in responding to the Financial Crisis in 2007 – 2009 has been quantitative easing (to lower long term interest rates) and direct reduction of the Federal Funds Rate (to lower short term interest rates). These measures definitely limited the severity of the Great Recession resulting from the Financial Crisis.  But the recession ended in June 2009, more than seven years ago.
Capture37In the meantime the continuation of such low interest rates is having many detrimental effects such as:

  • Pension funds, both public and private, have become greatly underfunded,  creating crises especially for state and local governments with defined contribution plans.
  • Retirement plans for millions of seniors have been upset by erosion of savings.
  • Inequality has increased as affluent stock owners benefit from the rapid increase of asset prices as investors reach for yield.
  • An immense misallocation of capital towards bond issuers at the expense of small business is taking place.
  • Federal debt is soaring as low interest rates make it much easier for Congress to ignore large budget deficits.
  • The next recession, when it inevitably arrives, will leave the Fed in a bind. The only tools remaining are a new round of quantitative easing (additional bond purchases) and even lower (i.e. negative) interest rates.
  • The Fed’s dual mandate of low unemployment (currently 4.9%) and price stability (low inflation) is being met but is accompanied by anemic GDP growth averaging only 2% since the end of the Great Recession. Such slow economic growth is largely responsible for the populist revolt in the 2016 presidential race.

Conclusion. Monetary policy can only accomplish so much. It is critical for the Fed to wind down its $4.5 trillion balance sheet as its bond holdings mature and to keep raising short term interest rates.  This will force Congress to step up to the plate with the changes in fiscal policy which are needed to stimulate economic growth.

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Get Out While the Getting Is Good!

 

David Malpass, president of Encima Global LLC, has an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The Economy Is Showing Signs of Life”, pointing out that business loans, auto sales and hourly earnings are up.  Mr. Malpass says that “The sequester is a bad way to set spending priorities, but it reduces the risk of future tax increases, contributing to the upturn in consumer and business confidence. … The good news is that an end to the latest version of the Fed’s quantitative easing would create space for more growth in private credit and a shift back toward market, not government allocation of credit. …Because America’s private economy is the world’s biggest net creditor and capital allocator, the United States will be the biggest beneficiary of a return to market based interest rates, with vast potential in efficiency, intellectual property and the capacity to innovate.”
Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is given much credit for the fact that the Great Recession did not turn into another depression.  But now, four years after the end of the recession, we have the twin problems of a slow growth economy, which keeps the unemployment rate much too high, and the potential for huge inflation caused by the vast increase in the money supply.  Mr. Malpass makes an excellent argument that the economy has recovered enough so that further quantitative easing will now retard future growth.  It clearly also increases the chance of runaway inflation.
Current artificially low interest rates also disguise the future damage now being created by huge federal deficit spending.  When interest rates go back up, as they inevitably will, interest payments on our rapidly increasing national debt will also increase dramatically, and force far greater cuts in federal spending than are currently being caused by the sequester.
In other words, to speed up economic growth, curtail the risk of future inflation and to put more pressure on Congress to control federal spending, the Federal Reserve should begin to exit from quantitative easing in the very near future!