The Interest Rate Awakens

Janet Yellen
Janet Yellen, of California, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become Federal Reserve Board chair, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday Nov. 14, 2013, before the Senate Banking Committee hearing on her nomination to succeed Ben Bernanke. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Today could be a big day. Today the Federal Reserve might finally raise interest rates.

If it does it will be the first time it has done so since 2006. Interest rates, which are precisely nobody’s preferred choice of water cooler conversation, are now the subject of such intense focus it’s hard to know whether we are making too big a deal of them, or not enough of a big deal.

To review, interest rates are used to either stimulate spending or increase savings. If rates are low, we argue that borrowing is cheap and it makes sense to spend money. If rates are high and it costs more to borrow, then people and businesses are likely to save. By this process we can increase or decrease the “cost” of money. Interest rates are therefore considered important in moderating an economy. If the economy is overheating and inflation is rising, raising interest rates should put a damper on it. If the economy is worsening or in recession, lowering rates could inspire companies to spend rather than save and encourage large purchases.

During 2008, in addition to bailouts and massive stimulus packages to the economy, the Federal Reserve in the United States heavily relied on the key interest rates to help stem the problems of the housing and banking crisis. Interest rates went from 5.25% in 2006 to 0.25% in 2008. And they’ve stayed there ever since.

US Fed Fund Rate
A short history of the Fed Fund Rate – since late 2008 the rate has been close to 0%

 

Officially the rate hasn’t moved up, although the Fed has “tightened” credit to the market. Slowing down its bond buying program and ending QE has helped nudge up long term borrowing costs. But eight years on the official interest rate is still near zero, effectively emergency levels, and the economy is (supposedly) vastly improved. So why hasn’t it moved before?

US unemployment
The US unemployment rate has dropped significantly. However there are lingering concerns that while there are fewer people now unemployed, many people are no longer looking for work and have dropped out of the labour force.

 

There is no simple answer to that question. Markets have been nervous, inflation expectations haven’t been met, the USD has risen too fast, unemployment has been too high, the global economy too weak; all of these reasons and more.

US GDP Growth
While it has fluctuated, US GDP growth has been reasonably strong, easily outpacing other global economies of the developed world.

 

But in the background has been a looming fear. That interest rates can’t stay at zero forever. That borrowing can’t be cheap forever. That if the market tumbles again we will have little room to maneuver. That eventually we will have to face significant inflation (and therefore significant interest rates). Those fears seem to have finally won over the largely dove-ish Federal Reserve.

But I want to posit a different thought with our readers. That maybe rates don’t matter as much as we like. Economies are large and complicated things. We only measure what we think is important and traditionally we’ve had to go back and reassess what makes economies work, especially in the face of serious recessions. Where once the Gold Standard was thought to underpin a strong economy, not a single country today relies on it. Where economies were thought to need to correct and businesses fail to right a recession, today we encourage large government spending. Where as we once thought that interest rates shouldn’t be factored into recessions, they are now our first line of defence.

Across the world interest rates are at historic lows to stimulate spending. The BoC recently suggested that interest rates could go negative, a startling and worrying sign for the Canadian economy, especially after two rate cuts this year. But behind this there must be some recognition that the use of interest rates to spur on an economy is at best logarithmic. Like slamming your foot on the gas pedal of a car the most power is delivered early on, not as the pedal reaches the floor.

Logs
Unlike exponential growth, logarithmic growth has a limit that it can not surpass.

 

And so it can be said that perhaps interest rates, currently at all time lows maybe don’t matter that much at all. Maybe you can’t trick people into spending money. Maybe there are limits to what we can do to help an economy. Maybe we have yet to truly identify what ails our economies.

I am of the opinion (in case you haven’t noticed) that the rise of big data may not foretell a future where we can know everything. Far from it, the abundance of data is at best showing that there is still much we don’t know. If the Fed hikes rates today, moving the rates up by 1/4 of a percent, I doubt that there will be any significant change to the economy. It will take years before we approach anything close to “normal” rates at around 2% or higher. In short, a rising rate today will likely mean more symbolically than it does tangibly to the economy.

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.