Consequences of Central Bank Policies

The existing capital stock continues to be frittered away at the expense of savers and retirees.  Nonetheless, central bankers don’t give a doggone about it.  This, after all, is one consequence of roughly eight years of near zero interest rate policy.

 

devastationCentral planning superheros, leaving a wasteland behind…

Image credit: Steve Epting

 

Another related consequence is that the pricing equilibrium of capital markets has broken down.  In particular, bond yields no longer reflect a market determined price of money established by the economy’s demand for credit.  Hence, previously unfathomable interest rate movements are now happening with unwavering regularity.

Presently, the yield on the 10-Year U.S. Treasury note is sliding into the abyss.  On Wednesday a new record low yield of 1.34 percent was reached.  This is the lowest historical yield we could find based on a review of 10-Year Treasury rate data going back to about 1870.

The last time the interest rate cycle bottomed out was during the early 1940s.  The low inflection point at that time was somewhere around 2 percent.  Where and when rates will finally turn this time is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, who in their right mind is plowing their hard earned money into Treasuries at these negligible returns?  Obviously, it’s better than the negative rate of return that Swiss 50-year bonds are yielding.   But come on.  Is it not conceivably possible, with the Fed’s desired 2 percent inflation target, that inflation could run-up above 1.34 percent at some time over the next decade?

 

TYX30 year bond yields are actually still slightly above their 1945 low. 10 year yields bottomed in 1942 if memory serves and are currently below those levels, but we couldn’t find a chart going back that far. In any case, the depression era and its aftermath – during WW II the Federal Reserve held yields at artificially low levels to enable financing of the war – is the only period in which bond yields fell to levels comparable to today’s. This is interesting, since we keep hearing that everything is fine with the economy – click to enlarge.

 

A Matter of Life or Death

By way of full disclosure, we’ve been anticipating the conclusion of the great Treasury bond bubble for about 8 years – possibly longer.  After a 25-year soft slow slide down from a peak above 15 percent in 1981, it only seemed logical that yields would bottom out around 2 percent and then resume a new, generation long uptrend.

So far this hasn’t happened.  Yields, in practice, have gone down…and then they’ve gone down some more. In hindsight, we’ve come to recognize that for a number of years we didn’t fully appreciate the significance of one very important component to this credit cycle.  Moreover, it’s something that’s unlike the last credit cycle.

Specifically, with a fiat based paper money system, and extreme central bank intervention, we didn’t account for just how far the limits of illogicality could push beyond what is honestly conceivable.  Perhaps a better imagination was needed.  Over the last few years we’ve made painstaking efforts to recalibrate our expectations.  Namely, we’ve done away with them.

But just because we have no expectations doesn’t mean we are indifferent.  To the contrary, we are far from indifferent.  We observe 10-Year Treasury yield movements with the same acute interest with which we observe an amorphous skin discoloration appearing on our torso.

What do each day’s slight changes mean?  Will they eventually become a matter of life or death?  These are the questions.  What are the answers?

 

Larry Summers Wants to Give You a Free Lunch

One possible suite of solutions came to us this week from Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and a legend in his own mind.  Summers, no doubt, is so smart he already knows the answers to questions before they are even asked.

 

800 larry summers2High IQ moron alert: Larry Summers, the man with a plan for everything and everyone. In case you don’t know him, he has solved problems all around the world from afar… for instance, it took him just one editorial in the FT to completely fix China.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

The world, as Summers perceives it:

 

“The world is demand-short — that the real interest rates necessary to equate investment and saving at full employment are very low and often may be unattainable given the bounds on nominal interest rate reductions.”

The result is very low long-term real rates, sluggish growth expectations, concerns about the ability even over the fairly long term to get inflation to average 2 percent, and a sense that the Fed and the world’s major central banks will not be able to normalize financial conditions in the foreseeable future.”

 

According to Summers, with this low growth and low interest context, government debt levels no longer matter.

 

In a world where interest rates over horizons of more than a generation are far lower than even pessimistic projections of growth, traditional thinking about debt sustainability needs to be discarded.  In the U.S., the U.K., the Euro area and Japan, the real cost of even 30-year debt will be negative or negligible if inflation targets are achieved.”

 

Somehow Summers already knows what interest rates will be more than a generation from now.  And based on the ultra-low rates that Summers sees far out into the future, he believes expansionary fiscal policy can pay for itself.

In other words, federal governments have free reign to massively increase deficit spending and run-up federal debts, because, on balance, the fiscal stimulus will pay for itself.

Do you buy what Summers is selling?  What if bond yields don’t go down over the next generation?  What if they go up?  Then, instead of being self-financing, fiscal stimulus would be self-destructing.

Regardless, by our estimation he’s just promising something for nothing – that he can give you a free lunch.  Alas, policies like these are what got us into this mess to start with.

Sound money, and the just discipline that comes with it, makes more sense to us.  But what do we know?  We’re lacking in many of Summers’ unique qualifications.  For example, unlike Summers, we’ve never lost $1.8 billion of other people’s money.

 

stimulus

Sometimes, the stimulus can become too much… Summers didn’t spend a lot of time as Harvard’s president – apparently he was only there long enough to deliver a devastating blow to its endowment. A few years ago, the US economy was only safe at certain times… and although Summers has less direct influence on policy today than he had back then, it is actually slightly worrisome that he has gone global with his advice-peddling.

Cartoon by Nate Beeler

 

Chart by: StockCharts

 

Chart and image captions by PT

 

M N. Gordon is the editor and publisher of the Economic Prism.

 

 

 

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