The China Crisis may be signalling the end of the “rationale” for zero lower bound asset price support.

I do not think that anyone really suspects that we are at the start of an aggressive tightening of interest rates by the Federal Reserve.   A 1/4 point increase in rates would be unlikely to do anything much to growth even at today’s relatively low rate of GDP growth.

In truth, the problems with GDP are not necessarily to do with interest rate costs in the sense that growth is not being held back by the cost of money.  Today’s low interest rates are here pretty much as part of an asset price support operation, as is QE.  The reason why they have remained so low, post 2008 (in the US at least), is because of the increasing importance of asset market stability (given debt levels) to the financial system in a low growth, post financial shock, environment.  

As such, interest rate and monetary policy have been supporting the asset price/GDP disconnect post the financial crisis on the assumption that the shock to growth was temporary and transitory.  Unfortunately the impact of the financial crisis on growth was neither, partly because debt levels were higher than could be supported by GDP growth pre crisis, but also because underlying growth, ex monetary/debt stimulus, was declining, for a number of reasons.

Post crisis, what we have had globally is an increase in debt levels, while pre crisis growth levels have not recovered.  The temporary asset price support operation has lasted longer than expected and has facilitated a further increase in asset focussed MS (increasing instability of the financial system), asset prices and asset focussed debt.

Do interest rates need to rise to prevent inflation surging ahead in the US economy? 

Wage growth remains weak and there does not appear to be material capacity constraints at any level.  The only real concern is rising consumer credit: consumer credit relative to income growth, especially non revolving credit, has been rising at historically high levels post crisis.  This hearkens back to fundamental issues in the structure and distribution of key growth drivers that are independent of interest rate factors. 

Low interest rates/QE have enabled further divergence between assets and debt and GDP and income growth, something that I do not believe was originally intended by Fed monetary policy.   The key decision factor for the Fed is not whether this is the right time to raise interest rates at an economic level, but whether there are other more critical forces restricting growth and, as such, whether it is prudent to continue to juice asset/debt markets.  In a low growth environment a ZLB interest policy is only going to create further divergences between asset prices, asset focussed MS/debt and GDP and other key flows supporting GDP.  

I also believe that China’s current problems are signalling an end to the belief that weak growth post crisis was temporary and that unconventional and unusual monetary policy supporting asset prices/debt was valid and the risks containable.  Otherwise, well, interest policy is no more than a “hope and pray” one that supports the build up of market and financial risks relative to growth. 

Thus the Fed when deciding whether or not to raise rates is ultimately deciding the size and timing of the end game: a greater risk later or a lesser, but by no means small, risk now.  I suspect the Fed realises it has delayed a rate rise for far too long, but I also question whether it wishes to sustain the impression that it can be swayed by short term market movements forever.  Does it want to be looked upon as Sisyphus eternally dropping the interest rate ball?   

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