Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Why Low Interest Rates Are Ineffective

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Federal Reserve will have to be even more creative during the next economic slowdown since the effectiveness of its monetary policies since the Great Recession seem to be wearing off as the economy, both domestically and globally, seems to be weakening.  As well, there are factors at play that have, over the past three decades, resulted in subdued economic growth as you can see on this graphic:

As you can see from the red line, the trend in real GDP growth has dropped rather significantly since 1980.  Since 1980, the average annual real GDP growth rate was 2.61 percent when both contractions and expansions are included; by comparison, the average annual real GDP growth rate since the Great Recession was only 1.3 percent when both contractions and expansions are included.

Why is this?  A recent article by Frank Shostak and Peter Stellios on the Mises website looks at why the Fed's current low interest rate policy is not creating economic growth.  First, they look at how productivity has declined over the past three decades as shown here, focusing on how the curve has flattened since 2009:

Even worse, the year-over-year growth in real output per hour since the end of the Great Recession (excluding 2009 and early 2010) is the lowest it has been during an economic expansion since 1980:

As well, the year-over-year growth in real private non-residential fixed investment has dropped substantially since 2012 as shown here:

It is important to keep in mind that the Federal Reserve has actively been propping up the American economy over the past three years while the growth in investment has dropped.  One would think that the continued policy of low interest rates would be encouraging growth in private investment not the other way around.  Obviously, there is another mechanism at work.  Please bear with me, some of this theory is rather abstract and flies directly in the face of traditional monetary theory which believes that interest rates drive consumption and that more aggressive monetary polices result in greater levels of economic growth.

The authors of the article note that "economic growth requires more than just low interest rates.".  The Austrian business cycle theory states that business cycles are a consequence of excessive growth in bank credit due to artificially low interest rates that are set by central banks.  As well, Austrian business cycle theory also examines the role that central banks play in the growth of the supply of money and how loose monetary policies impact the process of both wealth formation and the accumulation of real wealth.  In a market economy, money serves as a medium of exchange which allows the product of one producer to be exchanged for the product of another producer.  Here is a quote from the authors:

"The exchange of something for something also means that consumption doesn’t precede production. That is, we first have to produce a useful product before it can be exchanged for money and only then we could exchange money for goods we desire. Consumption is fully funded by preceding production."

The effects of easy money are set in motion by loose monetary policies like those currently being adopted by the Federal Reserve.  As the money supply increases, the process of transferring wealth from the wealth generators to the holders of the new money that was created out of thin air meaning that there is an exchange of nothing for something.  Here is another quote from the authors:

"This means the holders of newly printed money have taken from the pool of real wealth without giving anything back in return.  Consequently, this puts pressure on the pool of real wealth. Similarly to government, these holders of newly created money are engaged in non-wealth generating activities. (These activities sprang up on the back of money pumping. In the free unhampered environment these activities, which ranked as low priority would not be undertaken.)

Again loose monetary policy undermines the process of wealth generation and weakens the pool of real wealth.

One could however, argue that any form of investment takes from the pool of wealth without giving anything in return in the short term. This is true; hence if the present flow of production of final consumer goods is not fast enough, then the pool of wealth is going to come under pressure in the short term.

In the case of productive investments, one should expect in the future a strengthening in the pool of wealth. This is, however, not the case with respect to non-productive investments." (my bold)

Basically as the pool of real wealth weakens, it becomes much harder for businesses to continuously increase the pace of investment and, in turn, the pace of productivity growth drops.

Let's look at a graphic showing how the Austrian School measures the increase in U.S. money supply:

"Money is the general medium of exchange, the thing that all other goods and services are traded for, the final payment for such goods and services on the market."

Accordingly, AMS stood at $1.47 billion in 1960, rising to $4400 billion in mid-2016, an increase of 2283 percent and 188 percent since Q1 2000 alone.  This massive "printing" of money has created significant downward pressure on the wealth generation process.  It is this downward pressure on the pool of real wealth that has resulted in an increase in the time preferences of individuals, that is, their preference toward present consumption increases when compared to their preference for future consumption which puts upward pressure on interest rates as we can see in this graphic showing the real interest rates on AAA-rated corporate bonds and how they rose after 1980:

Between 1959 and 1979, the AAA real corporate bond yields averaged 1.98 percent compared to 4.26 percent between 1980 and mid-2016.  This does suggest that the pool of real wealth since 1980 has been under pressure.

Here is the authors' conclusion:

"We can only suggest that notwithstanding loose monetary policy, the wealth generating private sector has managed to create wealth, however as time went by on account of massive money pumping, their ability to keep the pool of wealth growing at an expanding pace has likely been curtailed.

To conclude we can suggest that contrary to popular thinking loose monetary policy cannot grow an economy but it definitely can destroy it and in this sense it is very potent." (my bold)

While many people don't particularly subscribe to the Austrian school of economics, their rejection of the classical view which states that interest rates are determined by the supply and demand of capital rather than the subjective decision of individuals to spend money now or in the future appears to go a long way to explaining why the Federal Reserve's interest rate policies are basically ineffective. The Austrian school's belief that business cycles are created by distortion in interest rates due to the actions of central banks and governments to control the supply of money flies in the face of what classical economics would suggest and may help us to better understand why this economic expansion is one of the least vigorous in decades.

1 comment:

  1. It is a complex world, isn't it? I guess you Americans should start seeing inflation, in fact I believe your inflation statistics are not reliable already. The pressure on real wealth beeing generated by money printing has been put on consenting foreign countries, and that will have to stop one day. The million dollar question is WHEN! Anyway, I really think you should not trust money as a store of value, it is doomed to fail, and it will be awesome. You should at least have some real money. I'm in gold, and it's going fine.