Another good video from Paul Solman of PBS ‘Making Sense of Financial News’.
In his new book, “The End of Alchemy,” Mervyn King still worries that the world banking system hasn’t reformed itself, eight years after its excesses led to collapse. He states that it’s easy with hindsight to look back and say that regulations turned out to be inadequate as mortgage lending was riskier than was thought. Furthermore, you are of the belief that the system works and it takes an event like the GFC to discover that it actually doesn’t.
Paul Solman asks the question that a large part of the problem that caused the GFC was the Bank of England and the US Fed were not able to keep up with the financial innovation that was going on in both of these countries. King refutes this by saying that there were two issues that were prevalent before the GFC:
- Low interest rates around the world led to rising asset prices and trading looked very profitable.
- Leverage of the banking system rose very sharply – Leverage, meaning the ratio of the bank’s own money to the money it borrows in the form deposits or short-term loans.
Central banks exist to be lenders of last resort. Problem: Too big to fail. And that’s what began happening in England, just like America, in the ’80s and ’90s. There needs to be something much more robust and much more simple to prevent the same problem from happening again. King makes two proposals:
- Banks insure themselves against catastrophe by making enough safe, secure loans so they have assets of real value to pledge to the Central Bank if they need a cash infusion in a hurry.
- Force the banks to keep enough cash on hand to cover loans gone bad as during the crisis banks didn’t have enough equity finance to absorb losses without defaulting on the loans which banks have taken out, whether from other bits of the financial sector or from you and I as depositors.
He finally states that the Brexit vote doesn’t make any significant difference to the risks facing the global banking system. There were and are significant risks in that system because of the potential fragility of our banks, and because of the state of the world economy.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the global economy was battling the menace of stagflation – high inflation and high unemployment. In order to counteract this, monetary policy was seen as responsible for controlling the inflation rate through the adoption of targeting. The New Zealand government was the first country to introduce this through the Reserve Bank Act 1989 which gave the responsibility of the central bank to keep inflation between 0-2% (later changed to 1-3%). Monetary policy should therefore play the lead role in stabilizing inflation and unemployment with fiscal policy playing a supporting role with automatic stabilisers – economic stimulus during economic downturns and economic contractions during high growth periods. Fiscal policy is therefore focused on long term objectives such as efficiency and equity.
In the post financial crisis world the usefulness of monetary policy is dubious. The natural rate of interest has now dropped to historical low levels. The natural rate of interest being a rate which is neither expansionary or contractionary. The issue for the central banks is how to bring about a stable inflation rate when the natural rate of interest is so low.
Historical Natural Rates of Interest
In the 1990’s the natural rate of interest globally was approximately between 2.5% and 3.5% but by 2007 these rates had decreased to between 2 – 2.5% – see graph. By 2015 the rate had dropped sharply and as can be seen from the graph near zero in the USA and below zero in the case of the euro zone. The reasons for this decline in the natural rate were related to the global supply and demand for funds:
- Shifting demographics and the ageing populations
- Slower trend productivity and economic growth
- Emerging markets seeking large reserves of safe assets
- Integration of savings-rich China into the global economy
- Global savings glut in general
Therefore the expected low natural rate of interest is set to prevail when the economy is at full capacity and the stance of monetary policy in neutral. However this lower rate means that conventional monetary has less ammunition to influence the economy and this will mean a greater reliance and other unconventional instruments – negative interest rates. In this new environment recessions will tend to be more severe and last longer and the risks of low inflation will be more likely.
Future strategies by to avoid deeper recessions.
Governments and central banks need to be a lot more creative in coping with the low natural rate environment. Fiscal policy could be used in conjunction with monetary policy with the aim of raising the natural rate. Therefore long-term investments in education, public and private capital, and research and development could be more beneficial. More predictable automatic stabilisers could be introduced that support the economy during boom and slump periods. Additionally unemployment benefit and income tax rates could be linked to the unemployment rate. The reality is that monetary policy by itself is not enough especially as the natural rate of interest and the inflation rate are so low. What can be done:
- The Central Bank would pursue a higher inflation target so therefore experiencing a high natural rate of interest which leaves more room to cut to stimulate demand. The logic of this approach argues that a 1% increase in the inflation target would offset the harmful effects of an equal-sized decline in the natural rate
- Inflationary targeting could be replaced by a flexible price-level of nominal GDP, rather than the inflation rate.
Monetary policy can only do so much but with global interest rates at approximately zero there needs to be the support of the politicians to enlist a much more stimulatory fiscal policy. Monetary policy has run out of ammunition and we cannot rely on central banks to fight recessions. However a less politicised fiscal policy, which is free to act immediately, has the ammunition to revive the economy.
Monetary Policy in a low R-star World – FRBSF Economic Letter
The Economist: September 24th 2016 – The low-rate world
The FT had an excellent article back in April that covered many concepts which are a part of Unit 4 of the CIE A2 Economics course. It covers the liquidity trap, deflation, MV=PT, circular flow, Monetary Policy, Quantitative Easing etc.
The article focuses on the liquidity trap with Monetary Policy being the favoured policy of central banks. However by pushing rates into negative territory they are actually encouraging a deflationary environment, stronger currencies and slower growth. The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.
Normally lower interest rates lead to:
- savers spending more
- capital being moved into riskier investments
- cheaper borrowing costs for business and consumers
- a weaker currency which encourages exports
But when interest rates go negative the speed at which money goes around the circular flow (Velocity of Circulation) slows which adds to deflationary problems. Policymakers pump more money into the circular flow to try to stimulate growth but as price fall consumer delay purchases, reducing consumption and growth.
The article concludes by saying Monetary Policy addresses cyclical economic problems, not structural ones. Click below to read the article.
A HT to Yr 13 student Albere Schroder for alerting me to this interview with the four most recent US Federal Reserve chiefs.
- Janet Yellen, the current Federal Reserve chairwoman was joined by:
- Ben Bernanke (2006-2014)
- Alan Greenspan (1987-2006)
- Paul Volcker (1979-1987)
Although the Fed Reserve chiefs served during widely divergent eras and are known to have different political views, the most notable take-away of the evening was the extent of their deep agreement.
There was a consensus that the Fed’s post-crisis rescue efforts have been successful and the economy is currently on a steady growth path, rather than rising thanks to a bubble that will soon burst. The remarks were a sharp rebuttal to the conventional wisdom of the contemporary Republican party and many grassroots conservatives that excessive stimulus from the Fed is either on the verge of sparking a drastic uptick in inflation, or already fostering a stock market or asset bubble.
“I’m not saying that the government should always be spending,” Bernanke said. “But at certain times, particularly in a recession, when the central bank is out of ammunition or ammunition is relatively low, then fiscal policy does have a role to play, yes.” Ben Bernanke
Greenspan had other ideas in that he disagreed with the idea that government spending should be increased during a downturn as this impacts on the country’s longer-term debt problem. Worth a look.
The Reserve Bank of Australia lowered its cash rate by 25 basis points to two percent in early May. The Bank had already dropped the cash rate by 25 basis points in February this year. In announcing its decision, the Bank commented on the decline in international commodity prices over the past year, which had resulted in a decline in Australia’s terms of trade. As a result, business capital expenditure (especially in mining) is expected to be weak. The Bank is expecting stronger growth in employment and an improvement in household demand. Low mortgage rates are resulting in strong house price inflation, especially in Sydney, and the Bank is “…working with other regulators to assess and contain risks that may arise from the housing market”.
China’s third interest rate cut in six months has spurred concerns the mainland’s economic slowdown is hitting where it hurts: the labour market. The People’s Bank of China (POBC) reduced reserve requirement ratios in April (the proportion of funds that banks have to hold with the central bank) in an effort to promote lending growth in the country. It has been reported that the cut in the reserve requirements ratio will allow banks to increase lending by about 1.2 trillion yuan. The POBC also reduced both the benchmark lending and deposit rate by 25 basis points to 5.1 percent and 2.25 percent, respectively, in response to weaker-than-expected economic activity data, which has raised concerns that the government’s annual gross domestic growth (GDP) target of “around 7 percent” might not be accomplished. Maintaining stable employment has been a top priority for the Chinese government as it steers the world’s second largest economy away from an export-driven model to one based on consumption.
The European Central Bank (ECB) recently announced that when banks now deposit money with them that it would pay -0.2%. In other words banks have to pay the central bank for the privilege of depositing money with them.
What is a negative real interest rate?
A real interest rate is the stated rate (2.5%) minus the inflation rate (2%) – real rate = 2.5% – 2% = 0.5%. As real rates fall it attracts more borrowing and less saving.
*Savers lose money each year to inflation
*Borrowing and consumption should rise.
Euro Zone – Interest rates 0.05%, inflation -0.6 = real rate of 0.65%
To get negative real rates, the nominal interest rate must be lower than the rate of inflation; if inflation is negative, the nominal interest rate must also fall below zero. As soon as the rate banks offer fall below that, savers have an incentive to withdraw their money and put it under the mattress. By charging negative rates the central banks are hoping that the trading banks will keep more of their money and therefore lend it out to investors. However the desire to reduce a banks reserves is futile as if someone borrows money from a bank and buys a new car the money is paid to the car company who will then deposit the money in their account which increases the reserves of the bank.
Central Banks have often used the term ‘the neutral rate’ which refers to a rate of interest that neither stimulates the economy nor restrains economic growth. This rate is often defined as the rate which is consistent with full employment, trend growth, and stable prices – an economy where neither expansionary nor contractionary measures need to be implemented.
In most economies post GFC the neutral rate of interest fell as they have required lower rates to try and encourage growth. See table below of current rates of Central Banks and approximate neutral rates.
What indicators shoud you look at as to whether neutral interest rates might have changed? Here are 4 that are identified by John McDermott, Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand:
1. World Conditions
Gowth of the major trading partners of any country can put pressure on aggregate demand which consequently causes inflationary conditions. With this and inflatinary expectations there could be pressure on a central bank to increase interest rates
2. Domestic productivity growth
A continued decrease in productivity growth will lower returns to investment, whcih means that investment is less attractive. If the desire to invest falls and the desire to save remains unchanged, a lower neutral interest rate will be required reconcile savings and investment plans.
3. Population growth
Lower population growth decreases the number of people in the labour force, meaning less investment is needed to provide the necessary capital stock to employ the average labour force. As investment falls, a lower neutral interest rate – the one that equalises the supply of and demand for funds – will be required.
4. Preferences for savings and investment
If people decide to save more and consume less a lower interest rate would be required to boost the pace of activity and inflation and reconcile saving and investment plans.
An implication of a lower neutral interest rate is that households and businesses will face lower interest rates ‘on average’, but this should not be read as a promise of lower interest rates all the time. Interest rates will need to be adjusted in response to the state of the economy. For times when demand in the economy is expanding more rapidly than the economy’s ability to meet that demand interest rates will need to be above neutral. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose how far interest rates move from trough to peak will be any different in the next business cycle than they moved in previous cycles. John McDermott, Assistant Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand