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. In 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.
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.
We are essentially at full employment with an overall unemployment rate of 4.9% and 2.5% among college graduates.
Real income (after government transfers and federal taxes) is up 49% between 1979 and 2010 for households in the lowest income quintile. Real income is up 40% between 1979 and 2010 for households in the middle three income quintiles.
The 70% decline in the price of oil since early 2015 will eventually have a positive impact on U.S. economic growth. The fall in gasoline prices alone has increased annual household spending power by more than $1000 per household. When consumers start spending this money, it will have a large impact.
The Fed’s quantitative easing program has led to artificially high stock prices which now are coming down as the Fed begins to raise short-term interest rates. The U.S. economy is strong enough to withstand this shock. It would be a mistake for the Fed to abandon its December forecast of four rate increases in 2016.
I would refer to Mr.Feldstein’s analysis as a somewhat rosy scenario. It ignores our low labor participation rate, our high (U-6) underemployment rate of 9.8% and the historically slow 2.2% growth of our economy since the end of the recession almost seven years ago.
Mr. Feldstein goes on to say that “the American economy does face long term problems. High on the list is the large and growing national debt, rising from less than 40% of GDP before the recession to 75% now and heading to more than 80% in ten years. But the big uncertainties which now hang over our economy are political, with presidential candidates threatening to raise taxes, increase fiscal deficits and pursue antibusiness policies.” Conclusion. What Mr. Feldstein is really saying is that our economy is in satisfactory shape right now but that we must attend to its long term threats to make sure that things do not turn sour. What the presidential candidates are saying in this respect is not encouraging.
The financial crisis of 2008 was the biggest shock to our financial system since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It caused a deep recession from which we are still recovering. To aid the recovery the Federal Reserve launched an unprecedented expansion of the money supply, referred to as quantitative easing, as well as keeping short term interest rates near zero. As explained by James Rickards, a portfolio manager at West Shore Group, in his new book, “The Death of Money, the coming collapse of the international monetary system,” such a severe recession would normally have caused a corrective period of deflation. Quantitative easing has warded off deflation and, so far, without igniting inflation. We are now in a catch-22 situation. Congress could and should adopt several policy changes to speed up the recovery as I described several days ago in “The Federal Reserve Cannot Revive the Economy by Itself.” But, if and when the economy does start growing faster, it will require great skill by the Fed to exit from its current policies without harm. If it contracts the money supply too quickly, it risks a sharp rise in interest rates. If it contracts the money supply too slowly, it risks a sharp rise in inflation. Mr. Rickards doubts that the Fed will be able to accomplish this fine tuning without another major crisis. Here are his Seven Signs of what to look for:
The price of gold ($1300 per ounce today). A rapid rise to $2500 will anticipate inflation. A rapid decrease to $800 signals severe deflation.
Gold’s continued acquisition by Central Banks. Large purchases by China, for example, will announce inflation.
IMF governance reforms, e.g. towards more voting power for China, will be an inflation warning.
The failure of regulatory reform, i.e. reinstatement of Glass-Steagall in addition to the Volcker Rule, will increase the chances of systemic failure.
System crashes, resulting from high-speed, highly automated, high volume trading. An increasing tempo of such events will cause disequilibrium which could close markets.
The end of QE, could give deflation a second wind and lead to a new round of QE.
A Chinese collapse (predicted by Rickards), will lead first to deflation and then inflation.
We all hope that the Federal Reserve can steer clear of a new, and much deeper, financial crisis. But it doesn’t hurt to have guideposts and Mr. Rickards knows what he’s talking about.
Harvard Economist, Martin Feldstein, has an Op Ed column in yesterday’s New York Times, “Saving The Fed From Itself”, which gets our current economic situation half right. First of all, Mr. Feldstein says that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy is inadequate because “the magnitude of the effect has been too small to raise economic growth to a healthy rate. … The net result is that the economy has been growing at an annual rate of less than 2 percent. … Weak growth has also meant weak employment gains. … Total private sector employment is actually less than it was six years ago. … While doing little to stimulate the economy, the Fed’s policy of low long-term interest rates has caused individuals and institutions to take excessive risks that could destabilize the economy just as it did before the 2007-2009 recession.” So far he’s right on the button!
But then he goes on to say, “To get the economy back on track,” Congress should enact a five year plan to spend a trillion dollars or more on infrastructure improvement and that this would “move the growth of gross domestic product to above three percent a year.” An artificial stimulus like this might work temporarily but then it ends and we’re back where we started. We need a self-generating stimulus that will keep going indefinitely on its own. How do we accomplish this?
The answer should be obvious. We do it by stimulating the private sector to take more risk in order to generate more profits. In the process they will hire more employees and boost the economy.
How do we motivate the private sector? By lowering tax rates and loosening the regulations which stifle growth. Closing tax loopholes and lowering deductions (which will raise revenue to offset the lower tax rates) has the added benefit of attacking the corporate cronyism which everyone deplores.
We really do need to put first things first. If we can jump start the economy by motivating the private sector to invest and grow, we will have more tax revenue to spend on new and expanded government programs as well as shrinking the federal deficit.
Why is this so hard for so many people to understand?
An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions”, reports a ruling by bankruptcy judge Steven W. Rhodes that Detroit “could formally enter bankruptcy and that Detroit’s obligations to pay pensions in full is not inviolable.”
The article goes on to say “that most here agree that the city’s situation is dire: annual operating deficits since 2008, a pattern of new borrowing to pay for old borrowing, miserably diminished city services, and the earmarking of about 38 percent of tax revenues for debt service. A city that was once the nation’s fourth largest has dropped to 18th, losing more than half of its population since 1950. The city was once home to 1.8 million people but now has closer to 700,000.”
The parallels and analogies between what has happened in Detroit and what is now happening in the U.S. are striking. The U.S. has had huge annual deficits for five years in a row and the accumulated debt is enormous, the Federal Reserve is holding interest rates down to make borrowing cheaper, and our country’s infrastructure is deteriorating much faster than it is being repaired.
Right now interest on the national debt is small ($223 billion in 2013, or 8% of federal revenues). But interest rates will inevitably return before long to their average historical rate of about 5%. Right now the public debt (on which we pay interest) is just over $12 trillion. This means that in the near future interest on the national debt will be at least $600 billion per year and probably much larger because the debt is still growing so rapidly. This will take a huge bite out of revenue and leave far less of it for other purposes.
This problem will continue to exist even if the budget were to be miraculously balanced from now on but it would at least lessen over time as the economy continues to grow. Without budget restraint the problem will never go away and will be a perpetual drag on our national welfare.
This is, of course, exactly the condition in which Detroit finds itself at the present time. Detroit has the option to declare bankruptcy and make its creditors and pensioners take big losses. Once it does this it can make a fresh start and perhaps recover its former status.
But are we prepared to let the whole country suffer a similar fate? The consequences would be enormous. If the U.S. goes down, the whole western world could come down with it. Democracy and human progress would be severely threatened. This is really too terrible a tragedy to even contemplate. Let’s turn things around before they get any worse!
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!