In this week’s Off The Cuff podcast, Chris and John Rubino discuss:
- The Fed’s Desperation
- It’s just playing for time at this point
- Why Lower Rates Will Blow Up The System
- ZIRP/Negative rates create all sort of perversities
- Italy Threatens To Revert To The Lira
- Is the Eurozone about to break up?
- Bad Corporate Debt Is The Ticking Time Bomb
- There’s simply way too much of it now
In this excellent analysis, John does an exceptional job clarifying the unique point in economic history in which we live. The Federal Reserve is truly out of ideas at this point; it is simply playing for time until the system breaks:
The point in the cycle where we are now is a really unusual time to talk about lowering interest rates. Normally when the labor markets are this tight, and wage inflation is running around 3% which it is right now, the Fed is usually tightening. Wage inflation is a kind of inflation they understand. This is as opposed to stock prices going up, bond prices, or house prices going up. That is inflation, but they do not count it as inflation. When wages go up, they usually start raising interest rates. It is really telling that they are seeing things that lead them to maybe start easing again even with the economy, in theory at least, still growing ten years into the beginning of an expansion.
I think they are recognizing the fact that the world – not just the US, but the whole global financial system – is so highly leveraged that any kind of downturn becomes systemically risky. In other words, a 20% drop in stock prices which is the definition of a bear market is something that happens all the time at least historically. This time around, it might knock down other dominos in a way that is uncontrollable. This is just because there is so much bad debt out there.
When you take on huge amounts of debt, by definition a lot of it has to be bad debt. Usually the good credits have already done their borrowing. If you are going to expand that beyond that point, you are going to have to work your way down into the barrel to the bottom of the barrel. That is where we are now. A lot of people who have borrowed money cannot pay it back. They are only hanging on because the economy is growing and because their paychecks are there. If you take that away, then Boom!. The system starts to fall apart.
These guys know that at the Fed. They are trying to delay the inevitable easing because they know that interest rates are already so low. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan never did get to raise interest rates. The Fed only got to raise interest rates a little bit, which means they have no ammo going into the next recession. Normally the Fed will cut interest rates by about 5 percentage points from peak to trough. This is as a way of reinvigorating the economy during a recession. If they were going to do that now, we would be at negative 2 or 3% on the Fed funds rate. It would be more deeply negative for Europe and Japan. That is uncharted territory.
What the Fed is doing now is using words. They are trying to talk the market up. It works (for now). Whenever they announce the possibility of easing or the cessation of tightening, you get a nice pop in the stock market. They are hoping that they can elevate asset prices until the China trade deal gets signed and until the turmoil in the Middle East has settled. That will also give the markets a pop, and that will keep the economy growing for a while. It will allow them to raise interest rates another couple of percentage points at the short end of the spectrum to give them ammo for the next recession.
They really do not want to start cutting right now. From here, they really do not have much room to cut. I think it is highly unlikely that they are going to get what they want. In other words, it is an economy that grows for the next three years and allows them to raise the Fed funds rate to 5 or 6%. That is really, really unlikely in the scheme of things. They are going to be forced in the recession that is probably imminent just because the expansion has been going on for way longer than a normal expansion. It is going to run out of steam pretty soon. They are going to be forced to cut interest rates to zero and beyond.
That is why Powell was talking about that. Now he is talking about the effective lower bound of interest rates which is below 0%, we found out in this last cycle. We do not know how far below zero it is. That is what we are going to find out this time around. In other words, how negative can you make interest rates before it becomes the problem rather than the solution? From an economic theory standpoint, that is fascinating. That is the kind of experiment you never expect to see in the real world. We are going to do it this time.
We are going to find out what the absolute lowest level interest rates can go to before it blows up the system. I do not use the words “blow up” lightly. That is what could really happen when interest rates get down to that point, and it turns out they do not work. Then it is game over.
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