Impotent Fed


From an interview of Bill Gross in Barron’s:

You have taken central bankers to task for impotence and ignorance, among other sins. In particular, you have written that Fed Chair Janet Yellen and others are ignorant of the harm done by their policies “to a classical economic model that has driven prosperity.” Just what did you mean, and what sorts of dangers do we face?

The Federal Reserve was created in 1913. President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971. For the past 40-plus years, central banks have been able to print as much money as they wanted, and they have. When I started at Pimco in 1971, the amount of credit outstanding in the U.S., including mortgages, business debt, and government debt, was $1 trillion. Now it’s $58 trillion. Credit growth, at least in its earlier stages, can be very productive. For all the faults of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the securitization of mortgages lowered interest rates and enabled people to buy homes. But when credit reaches the point of satiation, it doesn’t do what it did before.

Think of the old Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. A grotesque, rotund guy keeps eating to demonstrate the negatives of gluttony, and finally is offered one last thing, a “wafer-thin mint.” He swallows it and explodes. It’s pretty funny. Is our financial system, with $58 trillion of credit, to the point of a wafer-thin mint? Probably not. But we’re to the point where every bite is less and less fulfilling. Even though credit isn’t being created as rapidly as in the past, it doesn’t do what it did before.

Central banks believe that the historical model of raising interest rates to dampen inflation and lowering rates to invigorate the economy is still a functional model. The experience of the past five years, and maybe the past 15 or 20 in Japan, has shown this isn’t the case.

So where does that leave our economy?

In the developed financial economies, as a bloc, lowering interest rates to near zero has produced negative consequences. The best examples of this include the business models of insurance companies and pension funds. Insurers have long-term liabilities and base their death benefits, and even health benefits, on earning a certain rate of interest on their premium dollars. When that rate is zero or close to it, their model is destroyed.

To use another example, California bases its current and future pension payments to civil workers on an estimated future return of 8% or so from bonds and stocks. But when bonds return 1% or 2%, or nothing in Germany’s case, what happens? We’ve seen the difficulties that Puerto Rico, Detroit, and Illinois have faced paying their debts.

Now consider mom and pop and other people who read Barron’s. They are saving for retirement and to put their kids through college. They might have depended on a historic 8%-like return from stocks and bonds. Well, sorry. When interest rates get to zero—and that isn’t the endpoint; they could go negative—savers are destroyed. And savers are the bedrock of capitalism. Savers allow investment, and investment produces growth.

Are you suggesting a recession looms?

No. I see very slow growth. In the U.S., instead of 3% economic growth, we have 2%. In euroland, instead of 2%, growth is 1%-plus. In Japan, they hope for anything above zero.

What governments want, and what central banks are trying to do, is produce, in addition to minimal growth, a semblance of inflation. Inflating is one way to get out from under all the debt that has been accumulated. It isn’t working, because with interest rates at zero, companies and individual savers sense the futility of taking on risk. In this case, the mint eater doesn’t explode, but the system sort of grinds to a halt.

It doesn’t look like anything is grinding to a halt around here. You can see gorgeous golf courses from one window and a yacht basin from the other.

This isn’t the real economy. It is Disneyland and Hollywood. It is finance-based prosperity, based on money that doesn’t produce anything anymore because yields are so low.

Even in a negative-rate environment, as in Germany or Switzerland, banks and big insurance companies have little choice but to park their money electronically with the central bank and pay 50 basis points. But an individual can say “give me back my money” and keep it in cash. That’s what would make the system implode. I’m not talking about millionaires or Newport Beach–aires, but people with $25,000 or $50,000. Without deposits, banks can’t make loans anymore, so the system starts to collapse.

Let’s say Yellen steps down and President Obama appoints you the new head of the Fed. What would you do differently?

What you’re really asking is: What is the way out? The way out is a little bit of pain over a relatively long period of time. That is a problem for politicians and central bankers who are concerned with their legacy. It means raising interest rates and returning the savings function to normal. The Fed speaks of normalizing the yield curve but knows it can’t go too fast. A 25-basis-point increase [in the federal-funds rate] in December had consequences in terms of strengthening the dollar and hurting emerging markets.

Will the Fed raise rates this year?

Yes, as long as the stock market permits it. They have to normalize interest rates over a period of two, three, four years, or the domestic and global economy won’t function. In today’s world, normalization would mean a 2% fed-funds rate, a 3.5% yield on the 10-year bond, and a 4.5% mortgage rate. Would this create some pain? Of course. Housing prices probably would stop rising, and might fall a bit. The Fed has to move gradually.

What will be the 10-year Treasury yield at the end of 2016?

Close to what it yields now. I expect the Fed to raise rates once or twice this year. That would put the fed-funds rate at 1%. Does the 10-year deserve to yield 1.90% with fed funds at 1%? Yes, so long as inflation is 2% or less. If the Fed raises rates, the euro and yen could weaken. That would mean rates in Europe and Japan don’t have to go negative, or to extreme lows. In a sense, the Fed is driving everything. But it can’t raise rates too much without threatening a country like Brazil, whose corporations have tons of dollar-dominated debt.

What will the global economy look like in five or 10 years?

Structurally, demographics are a problem for global growth. The developed world is aging, with Japan the best example. Italy is another good example, and Germany is a good, old society, too. As baby boomers get older, they spend less and less. But capitalism has been based on an ever-expanding number of people. It needs consumers.

Another thing happening is deglobalization, whether it’s Donald Trump building a wall to keep out Mexicans, or European nations putting up fences to keep out migrants. Larry Summers [former secretary of the Treasury] has talked about secular stagnation, or a condition of little or no economic growth. At Pimco, I used the term “the new normal” to refer to this condition. It all adds up, again, to very slow growth. The days of 3% and 4% annual growth are gone.

Gross

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