Friday, March 18, 2016

How the Federal Reserve Destabilizes the Markets and Influences Politics

The Fed is being hoisted on its own petard.  Since 2008, it has suppressed interest rates, keeping them exceptionally low and forcing investors to put savings into risk assets such as stocks and high-yield bonds.  While there were good reasons for taking extraordinary action in 2008 and 2009, the Fed left rates so low for so long that investors, corporate America and borrowers have come to expect that really easy money is the norm, the default.  This dependency has made it virtually impossible for the Fed to normalize interest rates.  If the Fed raises rates, risk assets fall in value (as they did in recent months when faced with the specter of short term rates reaching a ghastly 1% to 1.25% by the end of this year).  The markets simply won't stand for interest rate increases, and the Fed sees itself as having no choice but to do the markets' bidding.  However, as the Fed continues to suppress interest rates, it only increases the markets' dependency, making future rate increases even more difficult. 

The Fed claims its interest rate policy is data dependent, and that it will raise rates as warranted by the data.  The U.S. economy is now at full employment and growing moderately.  Although last month's inflation data show stable prices, the recent rise in oil and gasoline prices will push up inflation numbers for March.  Yet, when it comes to the decision whether or not to increase rates, there is only one data point that matters.  That is the willingness of the financial markets to accept an increase.  With the markets' long term addiction to low rates deeply embedded, and their turbulent hissy fits every time the Fed hints at rate normalization, there is no foreseeable time when interest rates will return to historical norms. 

The Fed is undermining deeply rooted foundations of our society.  Highly rated long term bonds are essential to the stable retirements for which Americans and many other peoples hope.  Shorter term interest rates provide important supplemental income to savers, and promote financial stability and responsibility that mitigate the impact of economic cycles.  When people face lousy retirements (see, and can't count on much of any return on savings (especially after netting out inflation), you can get the political unrest that we see today. 

The Fed is missing an important part of the picture.  People don't just want cheap credit.  They want stable long term prospects.  During the 1950's, 60's and 70's, the World War II generation endured many layoffs and cutbacks, due to recessions, factory retoolings, labor strikes and so on.  But their fundamental faith in the future was unshaken, because they knew they had pensions and Social Security to take care of them in their golden years (which in fact were golden for many of them).  This kind of long term stability isn't evident today.  Instead, havoc permeates today's politics.  Angry voters in America and Europe are upending established political orders because they fear the future.

Personal consumption and wealth have suffered greatly from low interest rates.  From 2008 to 2013, savers lost about $750 billion due to low interest rates (see  Adding in likely losses for 2014 through today, the amount now is probably around $1 trillion.  That's real money.  Take that much out of people's hands, and they feel less secure, less inclined to spend, less inclined to borrow (you borrow less if you have less income), and more angry about the status quo.

What's more, the Fed's insistence on favoring risk assets has exacerbated the increasing inequality of income and wealth.  Rich people have the capital to invest in risk assets, and they become increasingly wealthy when cheap money pumps up the value of those assets.  Those getting the short end of the stick are now turning toward political extremism, because they feel they have no other choice.

The last thing the Fed wants to do is get entangled in politics.  It is supposed to be an independent agency that dispassionately dispenses policy in the public interest.  But the Fed's inability to act independently of the financial markets' short term tantrums is having significant impact on social stability and political trends.  Things will only get worse.  As the fall election approaches, the Fed will find itself in the horns of a dilemma largely of its own making.  If it raises rates because inflation is flaring (which is possible given the recent sharp increases in oil and gasoline prices), it will be accused of tilting the political picture one way.  If it does not raise rates despite an upswing in inflation, the markets will hum along on their cheap credit high, and the Fed will be accused of tilting the political landscape another way. 

The Fed is largely staffed and run by economists.  The economists there have failed to appreciate the diminishing returns of continuing the cheap money IV for the markets.  They have also failed to appreciate the costs of their cheap money policy.  If all they acknowledge is the upside (the return to full employment and moderate growth), and fail to acknowledge the pain they inflict on savers and workers who want to retire, then of course they will continue to inject cheap credit into the markets because they only see the benefits and not the costs.  Economists who don't acknowledge diminishing returns and see only benefits but not costs are bound to get policy wrong. 

The Fed measures its performance by short term metrics--current GDP growth, current unemployment, current inflation.  It doesn't appear to pay much attention, if any, to long term factors.  Long term factors are harder to measure.  But that doesn't mean they aren't important.  By focusing on the short term, and ignoring the long term, the Fed inevitably creates problems.  And we all have to live with the consequences of those problems.

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