Helicopter drops: feeding the animals in order to keep the zoo in business..

I was reading “Helicopter drops might not be far away” by Martin Wolf in the FT.  By now those interested in macro economics/monetary policy/asset markets should be well aware of the long gradual easing in interest rates, especially since the 1990s.  Lower interest rates did not just encourage people to borrow for consumption, but they also boosted the amount of borrowing for asset purchases with rising asset values also looping back into consumption for a while.   During this period, global money supply growth also became ever more asset focussed. 

For a while this helped stimulate consumption in key economies, also aiding in developing economy growth.   Developed economy consumers became ever more indebted at a time when income growth was also slowing, but given that asset markets kept rising and interest costs kept falling, everything was able “to keep on going for a while”…many felt that this period of low interest rates and rising asset markets was a “great moderation” and few seemed to notice the enveloping divergence. 

While the financial crisis was the bursting of this particular reality, it also marked the onset of a period of unprecedented financial engineering in response, itself a denial of that reality. 

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Interest rates their models and interest rate policy

The natural rate of interest and its determination, especially with respect to when and how the Fed and other world central banks should raise interest rates, is a hotly debated topic.  Many suggest that the only way to get back to trend GDP growth is to push interest rates below ZERO, into negative space, and/or to raise inflationary expectations.

The trouble, as I see it, is that the models used to determine the natural rate, or what the current policy rate should be, focus almost entirely on equilibrium concepts and a restricted set of difficult to define inputs, and can therefore miss key turning points in the domestic and global economic frame.   These are after all, in most cases, simple rule of thumb models. 

From a brief consideration of the subject and given my own historical stance with regard to key developing structural imbalances, I have the following simple propositions on the natural rate/negative interest rate debate

  • Natural Interest Rate models ignore accumulated financial and structural economic imbalances, imbalances that are also likely occasioned and accentuated by transitions and policy responses to those transitions.  Importantly the build up phase (excess) can raise growth (note US consumer debt/consumption expenditure) and mask changes in trend, while the build up itself can serve to push growth lower post crystallisation.  Additionally, point in time models are insensitive to the impact of the power of compound errors: policy that miss changes in trend and accommodate divergence from trend can last as know some time.
  • At critical turning points IR policy may ignore transitions and accumulating imbalances and risks creating significant divergences between the financial and the economic that collapse back through the core financial system as we saw in 2008/2009.  In this case, a deceleration in growth may be viewed as a below trend growth phase (for whatever reason) with policy lowering rates: note the increase in debt and debt relative to income and GDP growth in recent times.   Outsize increases in debt due to lax monetary policy may also impact global structure.
  • The financial and economic shocks that arise from this insensitive IR policy feed back into GDP and key relationships with negative consequences.   Imbalances are accentuated and transition dynamics ignored.  For example a transition to lower growth due to issues of frame may end resulting in a crisis of frame.  
  • The big question is how does IR policy fit into the big picture when we have transitions and accumulating structural economic and financial imbalances not captured by models?  Which problem do we deal with, since we now have more than 1?

In a world of many transitions and imbalances there may be more than one interest rate: one to accommodate financial imbalances and preventing their adjustment in a lower growth frame; another to offset some of the many negative trends impacting growth (thereby risking further financial and structural economic imbalances); another that would better reflect the balance of factors in emergent growth dynamics of a given frame once imbalances had adjusted and transitions completed.   A lower IR is needed for the first 2, a higher for the latter.  Of course, at the moment, our tool box only affords room for one interest rate, so who are you going to throw to the dogs?  I guess the objective is to keep all rates aligned as close to each other as possible and to minimise intervention.

If we ignore imbalances and transitions and assume that deviations from a given trend growth in output are all temporary and due to excess of saving over investment and not any other argument, then we risk more of the same.   Accumulated monetary policy errors weigh on time and are not necessarily washed out by time.

The paradox of monetary policy: reducing IRs below the lower bound is a seriously flawed policy

What we are seeing is a misconstrued extenuation of policy applied to a once rising frame, and indeed it is plausible that we have been following a path of unconventional monetary policy for a much longer time.   What we thought were monetary shocks on the way up were merely reactions to divergences occasioned by overly aggressive expansion of money supply. 

In its recent World Economic Review the IMF nicely, if not completely, summarised many of the world’s economic issues.  One thing clearly communicated was that global economic growth is both slowing down and in transition and that this must have consequences for monetary policy. 

The world has become increasingly dependent on debt (principally new money supply growth originated debt and asset focussed MS’s velocity dynamic within the asset sphere) to finance consumption, investment (and increasingly to a much greater extent, financial leverage), and while this was fine as long as growth barrelled along, incomes rose and populations continued to grow, it all started to go pear shaped as the engine started to wobble.  Lower interest rates designed to encourage consumption and investment, and loan growth financing the two, did just that and more so: in fact one of the consequences of lower interest rates was to increase the asset focus of money supply growth; a secondary consequence was to provide a source of additional expenditure (US especially) via home equity lines of credit drawing off rising asset values, at least until 2007. 

An inversion of many of the factors that had at one time driven growth were reversing at precisely the same time that debt and debt financed consumption expenditure was rising (1990s) and this is well evidenced in Japan.  Well we all know what happened next, ultimately the 2007/2009 financial crisis, but also a string of financial wobbles along the way. 

Slowing growth and rising debt could not coexist within the rising interest rate environment of the mid 2000s and hence we arrived at 2007 and onwards.  In truth, declines in interest rates and growth rates, combined with rising debt, on a global basis, have created a veritable choke hold and “post much greater QE”, one with increasing volatility and sensitivity to changes in monetary flows.  The overall complex whole is full of transitional issues, and these are discussed at length in many previous posts: understanding these various strands impacting demand and supply, loan growth and structural imbalances both domestically and globally is important if you are to be able to translate the many competing nuanced arguments being expounded both for and against unconventional monetary and dare I say it fiscal policy.

That said, we have remained remarkably transfixed on the one size fits all monetary policy to drive growth forward, hoping that low interest rates will spur borrowing for consumption and investment and somewhat erroneously hoping that those with cash will spend it.  Ultimately we are hoping that QE will drive the animal spirits and re awake the growth of good times past.

In the typical economic model with its rationale agent, the agent would be focussed on maximising short and long term consumption/saving from a given income.  Changing interest rates and inflation assumptions would immediately impact key consumption/saving decisions, and so the balance of expenditure between consumption and investment/savings.  But agents on average are neither wholly rationale nor are resources (income and wealth) equitably spread.  Moreover, the resources available for consumption and expenditure are not necessarily constrained to income/capital, but extend to new bank originated loans. 

Indeed the accumulation of imperfect decisions and growing imbalances as well as emergent dynamics (deflating/inflating economic frames and the changes they bring to key economic relationships) can constrain the impact of IRs and money supply on natural adjustment mechanisms.  In other words simple models ignore the actual balance of factors and the impairment of those factors in terms of their sensitivity to policy tools such as interest rates.  

The problem is that as growth slows, the amount of new money supply growth (loan or QE originated) should also decelerate, something which has not really happened.   In a slowing growth environment (one that may be characterised by a declining economic frame: population growth, demographics, productivity, increasing income inequality) we become ever more dependent on a market’s balance and allocational efficiency, that is the relationship between productive capacity/asset and debt values to changes in supply and demand dynamics and the distribution of income/wealth needed to maintain an appropriate balance of consumption and investment in a frame as it transitions.

What we have been doing is increasing money supply growth as growth falters and falls, all the while accentuating many of the imbalances hindering necessary frame transitions.  This has raised debt/equity values as GDP and income growth slows, increasing the sensitivity of the markets and the financial system to growth and changes in growth and raising the latent size of associated future demand shocks.   The solution has been to continually lower interest rates and when interest rates have been as low as they can go to swap debt assets for newly created central bank money.  We now appear to be about to extend this sequence, by reducing interest rates below the lower bound.

What we appear to have confused are the one time solutions to recessions occasioned by monetary tightening, that is to reduce interest rates as activity declines, in expanding frames, to applying the same medicine for a declining growth/deflating frames.  The argument being that the recessions were caused by monetary shocks impacting demand and hence any demand deficiency can be dealt with by monetary stimulus: well, of course, monetary stimulus can of course influence demand, but not without creating imbalances between assets and their value and the frame and capacity, at times, and the growth rate of the frame.    

In short, we do not need more money supply growth as a frame deflates, but an adjustment of the capacity and related capital (debt/equity values) so as to minimise divergences between growth and capital, including debt and its many forms, and hence to minimise shocks to the financial and the economic re maintaining balance between the two.

What we are seeing is a misconstrued extenuation of policy applied to a rising frame, and indeed it is plausible that we have been following a path of unconventional monetary policy for a much longer time.   What we thought were monetary shocks on the way up were merely reactions to divergences occasioned by overly aggressive expansion of money supply. 

I personally feel that arguments to reduce interest rates below the zero bound are seriously flawed, but flaws themselves ingrained into the body economic and financial for too long for many to be able to differentiate the reality of the trajectory. 

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I am not a fan of outsized monetary accommodation in a declining growth frame…but what can you do?

Irrespective, deflation is not the issue, but slowing growth within a complex frame over burdened with financial excess and key structural imbalances. 

A recent speech by Andy Haldane has kept the interest rate/zero lower bound debate “bubbling”.   In this speech, “How Low Can You Go”, Haldane broached the issue of monetary policy in the event of another demand shock.  He is quite right to do so since monetary policy would have little room for manoeuvre with interest rates only a scuff mark away from 0%.  His musings suggested getting rid of cash and bringing in negative rates.

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