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 Media is Turning Market Panic up to 11 – Learn to Tune Them Out

The current market correction is about as fun as a toothache. Made up of a perfect storm of negative sentiment, a slowing global economy and concerns about the end of Quantitative Easing in the US have led to a broad sell-off of global markets, pretty much wiping out most of their gains year-to-date.

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This is what my screen looked like yesterday (October 15th, 2014). The little 52L that you see to the left of many stock symbols means that the price had hit a 52 week low. The broad nature of the sell off, and indiscriminate selling of every company, regardless of how sound their fundamentals tells us more about market panic than it does about the companies sold.

One of the focal points of this correction has been the price of oil, which is off nearly 25% from its high in June. Oil is central to the S&P/TSX, making up nearly 30% of the index. Along with commodities, energy prices are dependent on the expectation of future demand and assumed levels of supply. As investor sentiment have come to expect that the global demand will drop off in the coming year the price of oil has taken a tumble in the last few weeks. Combined with the rise of US energy output, also known as the Shale Energy Revolution, or fracking, the world is now awash in cheap (and getting cheaper oil).

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The price of Brent Crude oil – From NASDAQ

But as investors look to make sense out of what is going on in the markets they would be forgiven if all they learned from the papers, news and internet sites was a barrage of fear and negativity masquerading as insight and knowledge. The presumed benefit of having so much access to news would be useful and clear insight that could help direct investors on how to best manage the current correction. Instead the media has only thrown fuel on the fire, fanning the flames with panic and fear.

WTI & BrentContrast two similar articles about the winners and losers of a dropping price of oil. The lead article for the October 15th Globe and Mail’s Business section was “Forty Day Freefall”, which went to great lengths to highlight one big issue and then cloak it in doom. The article’s primary focus is the price war that is developing between OPEC nations and North American producers. Even as global demand is reportedly slowing Saudi Arabia is increasing production, with no other OPEC nations seemingly interested in slowing the price drop or unilaterally cutting production. The reason for this action is presumably to stem the growth of oil sand and shale projects, forcing them into an unprofitable position.

 

This naturally raises concerns for energy production in Canada, but it is not nearly the whole story. The Financial Times had a similar focus on what a changing oil price might mean to nations, and its take is decidedly different. For instance, while oil producing nations may not like the new modest price for oil, cheap oil translates into an enormous boon for the global economy, working out to over $600 billion a year in stimulus. In the United States an average household will spend $2900 on gas. Brent oil priced at $80 turns into a $600 a year tax rebate for households. Cheaper oil is also hugely beneficial to the manufacturing sector, helping redirect money that would have been part of the running costs and turning them into potential economic expansion. It’s useful as well to Emerging Economies, many of which will be find themselves more competitive as costs of production drop on the back of reduced energy prices.

A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.
A current map of shale projects, and expected shale opportunities within the United States and Canada.

Business Reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues.

While Canada may have to take it on the chin for a while because of our market’s heavy reliance on the energy sector, weakening oil prices also tends to mean a weakening dollar, both of which are welcomed by Canadian manufacturers. Corrections and changing markets may expose weaknesses in economies, but it should also uncover new opportunities. How we report these events does much to help investors either take advantage of market corrections, or become victims of it. As we wrote back in 2013, business reporting isn’t about business, it’s about advertising revenues. Pushing bad news sells papers and grabs attention, but denies investors guidance they need.