Monday, August 13, 2012

How the Federal Reserve Discourages Consumer Demand

The Fed has, for the past four years, waged a relentless war on interest rates, suppressing them to zero at the short end of the yield curve and to record lows at the long end. This was all done in the hope of encouraging lending and fostering consumer demand. With about 70% of the U.S. economy coming from consumption, there is good reason to try to encourage consumers. But the Fed's basic approach has been to tilt the playing field sharply toward borrowers and punish savers for having the temerity to be frugal, all with questionable impact on consumer demand.

The boost given to borrowers appears to be limited. Interest rates on credit cards have, if anything, been rising. This is in part due to changes in the law that have limited some of the fees with which banks previously whacked their customers. But the sharp drop in short term rates since 2008 has not been mirrored in the credit card market. With recent credit card rate increases, borrowers have the incentive to reduce balances, not boost spending.

In the mortgage markets, rates are reaching all time lows. But only a limited segment of mortgage borrowers are able to qualify for refinancing (and a lot that can refi have already done so). The people who need help the most (i.e., those underwater on their mortgages) find refinancing a tough slog, if possible at all.

In the business world, rates may or may not be dropping, depending on the creditworthiness of the borrower. Business people tend to be cautious right now, with all the headwinds from slowing economies in America and Asia, recession in Europe, the unsolvable Euro crisis, and near complete political dysfunction in Washington. Drops in interest rates aren't likely to greatly affect their view toward business borrowing, investment or hiring. That's evident from the fact that businesses are choosing to hold billions of dollars in cash for essentially no return rather than invest or hire. If you're not deploying your own cash to invest or hire, why would you borrow even at a low interest rate to invest or hire?

But the impact of low interest rates on savers is significant. Let's hypothetically take a relatively frugal American who is approaching or in retirement, and in 2006 had $750,000 in a diversified portfolio. During the financial crisis of 2007-08, this portfolio, we'll assume, was pummeled down to $500,000. Many investors victimized in this fashion have fled equities and put their reduced savings into fixed income investments. For the sake of simplicity, let's assume the Fed's war on interest rates kept the yield curve 1% below where it might have been with a somewhat more balanced approach by the Fed. (Thus, at the low end, the Fed would today be targeting a fed funds rate of 1 to 1.25% instead of today's 0 to 0.25%.) The interest lost by our hypothetical saver would be $5,000 a year. Compounded over 4 years, the saver would have lost about $20,302 before taxes. While this amount after taxes wouldn't buy a yacht, and only a modest car, consumption would probably be noticeably boosted if millions of Americans had enough additional money to buy a modest car.

Given that the Fed has promised to keep interest rates ultra low until late 2014, the lost income will reach approximately $30,760 per hypothetical saver in a couple of years. And this amount could increase if the Fed extends that promise into 2015 (a serious possibility).

It's important to keep in mind that these income losses are permanent. There is no way savers can recoup these losses. The Fed won't boost interest rates extra high later on in order to bail out the frugal. So savers' consumption will be permanently reduced.

The Fed claims to be greatly concerned with consumer expectations and their general state of mind, believing that public confidence is crucial to restoring demand and prosperity. The message sent by the Fed's long and continuing war on interest rates is that things are bad and will be bad for a long time. Any rational consumer, particularly those that are frugal to begin with, will hunker down, dig the fox hole even deeper, cover it with a sturdy layer of thick logs, camouflage it with an abundance of branches and brush, and never even dare to peek out.

The situation in Japan is illuminating. The Japanese central bank has, since its own financial crisis in 1989-90, banished positive interest rates from the land (encouraging the so-called carry trade, where Japanese citizens deploy their savings or borrowed yen into investments in foreign currencies that offer positive returns; thus Japan's capital is productively used in other nations). Japanese consumers have gone from being luxury hounds to penny pinchers and bargain hunters. Japan has been stagnant for more than two decades, and its most recent economic statistics show that the stagnation has become a seemingly permanent and undesired house guest. America appears to be headed down the same path. Although the headlines generated by politicians and candidates for political office promise solutions, hard evidence to be optimistic remains scarce. Even the tech sector, America's economic sweetheart, has offered a lot of disappointment lately, with Facebook's stock losing almost half its IPO valuation and other familiar tech companies serving up results akin to the financial equivalent of Spam quiche. Will America become Japan? This is no longer the question. The question now is how will America stop being like Japan.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Knightmare in the Financial Markets

Knight Capital's announcement today that it lost $440 million yesterday (Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012) when its trading system went haywire illustrates the potentially dramatic consequences of computerized trading. Details on exactly what happened remain scarce. But it appears that trading volume at Knight spiked for some 30 to 45 minutes at many strange prices. A large number of trades were cancelled. Broker-dealers that normally route orders to Knight have temporarily ceased to send it business until the air is cleared.

Knight opened for trading this morning, saying that it still complied with regulatory capital requirements. Nevertheless, its capital position is reportedly not pretty, and news stories indicate that it's seeking a capital infusion, plus an emergency loan from a major bank. Knight may not survive if it doesn't establish confidence among the broker-dealer community within a day or two.

And that's the really scary thing about the Knight debacle. It's conceivable that Knight could have been rendered immediately insolvent if its big trading glitch had lasted a bit longer, or had involved a somewhat larger number of transactions. Such an insolvency would have impacted Knight's counterparties, possibly imperiling them if their exposures to Knight were large enough. If these counterparties had become insolvent, the financial miasma could have spread and other firms knocked down like falling dominoes. All this, potentially, because of less than an hour's computerized trading gone haywire.

The risk of insolvency in such a situation could be heightened by the fact that other market participants might observe such a debacle in real time and pull their accounts before the trading day ended. This, were it to occur, would amount to a run on Knight. Now that the financial community knows that Knight (and perhaps its competitors) can become imperiled within an hour's time, they might be all the quicker to grab for their money first, and ask questions later. The quaint display of depositor anxiety so sentimentally portrayed in It's A Wonderful Life would be a mere box car compared to the Maserati of broker-dealer flight in our world of computerized trading.

Sadly, regulators would probably have little or no idea of what would be going on. The SEC recently adopted rules for a consolidated audit trail with a requirement to report trades to the agency. But the new rules call for next day reporting to the SEC. The agency wouldn't be able to track in real time what the cannoli was going on, and hence would be behind the curve as market participants cut and ran.

Of course, the Federal Reserve would jump in with bailout checks for one and all of the imperiled firms if a meltdown of the financial system loomed. But the availability of desperation-driven, last ditch bailouts offers little comfort. More than ever, market participants and regulators need to get a handle on computerized trading. The ability of computers to execute vast numbers of ridiculous trades without any constraint is really, truly, seriously dangerous. By all indications, the financial markets are now operating on a sudden death basis. That cannot end well.