Our Federal Reserve keeps talking about raising interest rates. Why? Maybe they believe they must because rates are so low. I think they are overlooking the fundamental causes of the weak growth - low rate environment- the high debt-to-GDP ratios- involving government, corporate, and consumer debt- and existing in every major country in the world.
Debt keeps mounting, especially government debt. Let’s look at the US. In the past 10 years, $7.9 trillion was borrowed to cover deficits but debt increased by $11 trillion, if other “spending” projects are included. The Congressional Budget Office projects deficits at $9.2 trillion in the next 10 years and total debt issued to be another $13 trillion! We are already over the 100% debt-to-GDP level that causes indigestion. Other countries are in the same boat- Japan, China, all of Europe, and Australia. Why do I write about this debt? Because it is the high government debt levels that are crowding out private sector investment and that are pushing GDP and interest rates lower. High government debt levels are hurting productivity, corporate profits, industrial production, and consumer spending.
Government spending is also crowding out consumers and businesses. Recently, I have read Dr. Lacy Hunt’s materials and seen the research that shows that government spending is actually creating a negative multiplier; that is, every dollar of government spending is hurting GDP growth. As government spending rises, GDP has fallen along with investment and productivity. All we need to do is look around; we are living it.
Investment managers are sitting on a near record level of cash in their funds, currently at 5.8%. Banks are sitting on huge reserves at the Fed. We are stuck in this endless liquidity trap for now. So what does it mean? Slow growth and low rates should continue.
Someone said to me that if the Fed doesn’t raise rates now, they won’t have any tools later to use to fight recession, when it comes. I disagree. The Fed can use Quantitative Easing, or “QE,” again to buy bonds to keep rates low. Janet Yellen recently said she is open to the notion of purchasing corporate debt, as is being done by the ECB in Europe, provided that Congress agrees and approves it with legislation. Another tool that was fairly effective in the years after 2008 was Forward Guidance, which involved Fed promises to keep rates low until specific dates in the future; this tool was one of Ben Bernanke’s faves. There is also the negative interest rate path, tried by other countries, but unproven so far.
I have noticed that the future inflation gauge published by ECRI has been rising steadily for months, with increases being larger on a year-over-year basis. The gauge tries to forecast inflation six to nine months from now and things would be bleak if the projections came true. I am sure the Fed has taken notice, and they, like myself, are trying to figure out if this is transitory. I believe that it is, because the producer price index is still low and prices are not yet ready to flow through to consumers, despite higher than average increases in wages. Average hourly earnings have risen 2.6% compared to last year. Another factor worth noting is that gold prices have risen 19% year-to-date in 2016, but are off their worst levels; this commodity could be a safe haven for Brits fleeing Brexit. Inflation is not a problem right now; getting GDP growth to exceed 2% certainly is.
Rates are low for several reasons- low economic growth, high debt-to-GDP levels, low inflation, and low productivity. What do I see as I look out into 2017? Low growth, low rates, no momentum, and high debt levels will continue to dominate. I don’t believe inflation is an imminent threat because growth is so weak. The Fed doesn’t either, as they project inflation to be under 2.0% into 2018. Most notably, they seem to agree with me that economic growth will continue to be low. Or is it that I agree with them? Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading! 10/24/16
Dorothy Jaworski has worked at large and small banks for over 30 years; much of that time has been spent in investment portfolio management, risk management, and financial analysis. Dorothy has been with Penn Community Bank and its predecessor since November, 2004. She is the author of Just Another Good Soldier, which details the 11th Infantry Regiment's WWII crossing of the Moselle River where her uncle, Pfc. Stephen W. Jaworski, gave his last full measure of devotion.