Outlook Worsened: Negative Rates from the Federal Reserve? Really?

Federal Reserve Janet Yellen
On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen purported that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would be willing to lower the federal funds rate into negative territory if US economic conditions deteriorated further.

The United States faces many problems — a massive welfare state, complicated tax code, oversized government, over-regulated economy, and bloated education system. After a flurry of astigmatic regulation designed to promote home affordability created a $4 trillion housing bubble and ensuing financial crisis, most would hope that a nation as powerful as the US would finally get its act together. That pretence was simply false.

Since 16 December 2008, the FOMC has maintained a policy of 0% interest rates on federal funds, overnight funds traded between banks to maintain their deposits at the Fed. This was aimed to push interest rates far below Wicksellian (equilibrium) level and create another asset bubble. While this would result in another recession after a burst, the Fed has not been an organisation known to be concerned with long-term stability since the passage of the mandates set forth in the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977.

In addition, the FOMC maintained a policy of quantitative easing from 2008 to 2014. The policy  administered $3.5 trillion in asset purchases in the secondary market, with a goal of suppressing yields on government bonds to shift the allocations in investors’ portfolios to riskier assets such as stocks. Considering that the DJIA has more than doubled since the end of the financial crisis, QE clearly served its purpose in securities markets. In another respect, however, the program failed tremendously.

This current expansion is the slowest in the entire economic history of the United States. GDP growth has averaged 2.2% since the end of the financial crisis, far below the 1949-2007 long-term average of 3.25%. Wage growth is completely anaemic, with virtually no inflation-adjusted growth in the past six years. Government spending is approximately 40% of GDP and the country faces a regulatory burden of 12% of GDP. Despite all of these negative factors, both the Obama administration and Federal Reserve have attempted to convince the populace that the US economy is performing at an “optimal” level.

In recent months, however, many investors and consumers alike have started to discern the blatant attempts at misinformation. Equities markets are completely flat in 2015 so far and reports in consumer confidence are consistently falling. After the announcement that the US economy grew just 1.3% in the third quarter of 2015, the Federal Reserve itself began to shed its attitude of confidence and false optimism.

In the last FOMC meeting on 28 October, Narayana Kocherlakota, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, projected negative rates in the future. Many disregarded this as a deranged prediction from Kocherlakota, who is known for making erroneous statements on future monetary policy. On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, claimed that the federal funds rates could be lowered to negative territory “if outlook worsened”. The radical fringe has suddenly become the voice of prophecy.

That same day, William C. Dudley, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stated in an interview that “some of the experiences [in Europe] suggest maybe can we use negative interest rates and the costs aren’t as great as you anticipate,” referring to the disastrous negative interest rate policy set forth by the European Central Bank. Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, hinted that rates could be lowered further if the condition of Europe’s economic condition somehow gets even worse.

The harsh truth that has emerged since the end of the financial crisis is that expansionary monetary policy does not lead to higher economic growth in the sustainable sense. Expansion of the money supply and artificially lowering interest rates only serve to create an asset bubble, which is present in the US, Canada, and Europe. Negative interest rates will only make this conundrum even more difficult to rectify after the respective bubble bursts. Instead of focusing on short-term shortcuts that lead to economic malaise in the future, the West should begin fixing its long-term problems.

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ECB Goes All In with QE

On 5 March 2015, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced a €1 trillion quantitative easing program, allocating €60 billion in monthly security purchases until September 2016.
On 5 March 2015, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced a €1 trillion quantitative easing program, allocating €60 billion in monthly security purchases until September 2016.

After deciding earlier this morning to keep the discount rate at a record low 0.05%, Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, announced a quantitative easing programs of sovereign treasury notes, mortgage-backed securities, and covered bonds. The QE program will begin on 9 March with €60 billion of asset purchases until September 2016, totaling €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion). The program will purchase bonds with a negative coupon as long as the rate is not below the ECB’s deposit rate, which is -0.2%, but will not buy more than a 25% share of a bond issue to prevent the ECB from having a blocking majority in case of debt restructuring.

While this sort of economic stimulus failed in the United States with the Federal Reserve’s $3.5 trillion program, the ECB believes that expanding the money supply to increase the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices, the Eurozone’s inflation indicator, will spur economic growth to a “prosperous level”, which Draghi describes as 1.5% annual GDP growth.

Even though the new 1.5% growth projection for 2015 is abysmal at best, it isn’t certain that the European Union will even achieve that. China, the EU’s largest trading partner, has lowered its GDP growth forecast to 7% for 2015 amid fears of a real estate bubble burst. Additionally, the possibility of a “Grexit”, or Greek exit from the Eurozone, would send Europe into an economic spiral, undermining the viability of the Euro. As stated in previous articles, none of the major problems facing the EU, such as inefficient state-owned enterprises, high tax rates, excessive regulation, and insolvent pension systems, are being rectified by national governments or the EU at-large. As a result, it should not surprise many that the region has difficulty achieving 1.5% growth despite €60 billion a month of asset purchases.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the ECB meeting earlier today were the HICP projections. While the 2015 inflation forecast was lowered to 0% from 0.7% in the December 2014 report, the 2016 forecast was raised from 1.3% to 1.5%. Why did these trends so in opposite directions? Draghi and other members of the ECB’s Executive Board are hoping that “an increase in oil prices will raise inflation to a sustainable level”. The ECB is betting the entire QE program on the prediction that OPEC’s hesitance to cut production will collapse the US shale industry, which can avoid default and liquidation despite a negative cash flow due to extra liquidity in global markets due to QE.

This leaves the question: has the European Central Bank turned into a complete joke? In the same QE announcement, the central bank said that its intention is to be market-neutral, with the hope of creating as little “distortion” as possible. If the ECB would abide by their own claims, the state of the European economy would be nearing a “prosperous level”.