Why It Matters If The Fed Raises Rates

628x471This summer might prove to be quite rocky for the American and global economies. The smart money is on the Federal Reserve raising its borrowing rate from a paltry 0.25% to something…marginally less paltry. But in a world where borrowing rates are already incredibly low even a modest increase has some investors shaking in their boots.

Why is this? And why do interest rates matter so much? And why should a small increase in the government borrowing rate matter so greatly? The answer has everything to do with that financial black hole 2008.

I asked NASA to use the Hubble telescope to take a photo of the 2008 financial crash. This is what it looks like from space.
I asked NASA to use the Hubble telescope to take a photo of the 2008 financial crash. This is what it looks like from space.

No matter how much time passes we still seem to orbit that particular mess. In this instance it is America’s relative success in returning economic strength that is the source of the woes. Following the crash their was a great deal of “slack” in the economy. Essentially factories that didn’t run, houses that sat empty and office space that was unused. The problem in a recession is convincing 1. Banks to lend to people to start or expand businesses, and 2. to convince people to borrow. During the great depression the double hit of banks raising lending rates and people being unable to borrow created a protracted problem, and it was the mission of the Federal Reserve in 2008 to not let that happen again.
US GDP Growth 2012-2015 source: tradingeconomics.com

To do that the American government stepped in, first with bailouts to pick up the bad debt (cleaning the slate so to speak) and then with a two pronged attack, by lowering the overnight lending rate (the rate that banks can borrow at) and then promising to buy bonds indefinitely, (called Quantitative Easing). The effect is to print mountains of money, but in ways that should hopefully stimulate banks and corporations to lend and spend on new projects. But such a program can’t go on for ever. Backing this enormous expansions of the treasury requires borrowing from other people (primarily China) and the very reasonable fear is that if this goes on too long either a new financial bubble will be created, or the dollar will become worthless (or both!).

Today the Fed is trying to determine whether that time has come. And yet that answer seems far from clear. Investors are wary that the economy can survive without the crutch of cheap credit. Analysts and economists are nervous that raising rates will push the US dollar higher, making it less competitive globally. Meanwhile other countries are dropping interest rates. Germany issued a negative bond. Canada’s own key lending rates was cut earlier this year. People are rightly worried that a move to tighten lending is going in the exact opposite direction of global trends of deflation. If anything, some argue the US needs more credit.

The question of raising rates reveals just how little we really know about the financial seas that we are sailing. I often like to point to Japan, whose own economic problems are both vast and mysterious. Lots of research has gone into trying to both account for Japan’s economic malaise; it’s high debt, non-existent inflation, and how to resolve it. Currently the Japanese government is making a serious and prolonged attempt to change the country’s twenty year funk, but it is meeting both high resistance and has no guarantee of success.

Similarly we have some guesses about what might happen if the Fed raises its rates in the summer or fall. Most of the predictions are temporary instability, but generally the trend is good, raising rates usually correlates to a stronger and more profitable market.

But that’s the key word. Usually. Usually European countries aren’t issuing negative interest rates on their debt. Usually we aren’t in quite a pronounced deflationary cycle. Usually we aren’t buying billions of dollars of bonds every month. Usually.

The answer isn’t to ignore the bad predictions, or obsess over them. The best idea is to review your portfolio and make sure it’s anti-fragile. That means incorporating traditional investment techniques and keeping a steadfast watch over the markets through what are often considered the quiet months of the year.

The Zombie Apocalypse and Investing

If 2008 was the financial apocalypse it is often written about, it is a zombie apocalypse for sure. It’s victims don’t die, they are merely resurrected as an infected horde threatening to infect the other survivors. And no matter how many times you think the enemy has been slain, it turns out there is always one more in a dark corner ready to jump out and bite you.

This past month has seen the return of the zombie of deflation, a menacing creature that has spread from the worst ravaged economies in Europe into the healthier economies of the Eurozone. Deflation is like the unspoken evil twin that lives in the attic. I’ve yet to meet an analyst, portfolio manager or other financial professional that wants to take the threat seriously and doesn’t insist that inflation, and with it higher interest rates are just around a corner.

The eagerness to shrug-off concerns about deflation may have more to do with the reality that few know what to do when deflation strikes. Keeping deflation away is challenging, but not impossible, and it has been the chief job of the central banks around the world for the last few years. But like any good zombie movie, eventually the defences are overrun and suddenly we are scrambling again against the zombie horde.

This. Except it’s an entire economy and it won’t go away.

In the late 1990s, Japan was hit with deflation, and it stayed in a deflationary funk until recently. That’s nearly 20 years in which the Japanese economy didn’t grow and little could be done to change its fate. The next victim could be Europe, whose official inflation numbers showed a five year low in September of 0.3%. That’s across the Eurozone as a whole. In reality countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal all have negative inflation rates and there is little that can be done about it. Pressure is mounting on Germany to “do more”, but while the German economy has slowed over the past few months it is still a long way from a recession and there is little appetite to boost government spending in Germany to help weaker economies in the EU.

Japanese GDP from 1994-2014
Japanese GDP from 1994-2014

Across the world we see the spectre of zombie deflation. Much has been made of China’s slowing growth numbers, but perhaps more attention should be paid to its official inflation numbers, which now sit below 2% and well below their target of 4%. The United States, the UK, the Eurozone and even Canada are all below their desired rates of inflation and things have gotten worse in this field over the summer.

What makes the parallel between this and a zombie apocalypse so much more convincing is that we have squandered some of our best options and now are left with fewer worse ones. Since 2008 the world hasn’t deleveraged. In fact governments have leveraged up to help indebted private sectors and fight off the effects of the global recession. Much of this come in the form of lower (from already low) interest rates to spur lending. But when the world last faced global deflation the cure ended up being broad based government spending that cumulated in a massive war effort. By comparison the debts of the government haven’t been transformed into lots of major public works initiatives, instead that money has sat in bank accounts and been used for share buybacks and increases in dividends.

For investors this is all very frustrating. The desire to return to normalcy (and fondly remembering the past) is both the hallmark of most zombie films and the wish of almost every person with money in the market. But as The Walking Dead has taught us, this is the new normal, and investing must take that into account. Deflation, which many have assumed just won’t happen, must be treated as a very likely possibility, and that will change the dynamics of opportunities for investment. It leads to lower costs for oil and different pressures for different economies. It will also mean different things for how people use their savings for retirement and how they will seek income in retirement. In short, the next zombie apocalypse can likely be defeated by paying attention and not keeping our fingers in our ears.

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If it were only this simple….