[IllustratIon: Martin Kozlowski]
The rabbi and philosopher Shimon Green, founder of the Bircas Hatorah center in Jerusalem for the study of ancient wisdom, has observed that the fear of zombies is cross-cultural: “The fear stems from our own fear of living hopeless lives…a fear that our lives are nonproductive, and that we are the walking dead.”
Many fear that the U.S. economy is “the walking dead”—that the economy is a charade produced by an elixir of low interest rates administered by the Federal Reserve. In an effort partly intended to dispel that fear, the Fed raised the federal-funds rate in December.
With inflation languishing below its 2% target, the Fed began a process of interest-rate normalization, thereby demonstrating confidence in the economy. Raising the fed-funds rate was supposed to encourage expectations of higher growth, which resulted, in part, from the Fed’s recognition of considerable improvements in labor markets.
When the Fed raised rates, it said it was reasonably confident that inflation would rise to meet its objective, describing the impact of energy prices as transitory and predicting that they would pick up in 2016.
While 2016 got off to a rocky start with oil and stock prices declining, both have rebounded and are now trading at levels comparable to December. The Fed continues to project confidence, and the Federal Open Market Committee recently announced that it is on course to continue to raise rates.
The official dot plot of members’ expectations shows that they expect two rate hikes in 2016 and a fed-funds rate of 3% by mid-2018. This contradicts market expectations for a more muted path forward.
While the Fed sends a message of confidence, pointing to decreases in unemployment, a pickup in average hourly earnings, and core consumer-price-index inflation exceeding 2%, it is aware that inflation continues to run below its longer-run objective.
The Fed is also mindful of the potential for adverse shocks that could derail the economy. The International Monetary Fund last week lowered its global growth forecast, saying that the sluggish pace of growth leaves the world economy more exposed to risks.
The Fed needs to remain accommodative while continuing to raise the fed-funds rate. While that rate is a short-term one charged between banks for overnight money, longer rates have the greatest impact on asset purchases (like buying a home).
Thus, the Fed pursued quantitative easing, purchasing longer-term securities to directly lower long-term yields. It intended to encourage growth more directly.
The QE program effectively ended in 2014, but longer-term rates have continued to decline. Since the Fed raised fed-funds rates in December, 30-year yields have gone down from 3% to 2.5%.
THUS THE END OF QE and a rising fed-funds rate do not necessarily spell the end of easy money. The Fed continues to buy long bonds by reinvesting principal and interest from its maturing securities. Its balance sheet is about $4.5 trillion, of which approximately $1.5 trillion matures in fewer than seven years.
An oft-overlooked paragraph in FOMC statements promises to continue the reinvesting until the normalization of federal funds is “well under way.”
It is no surprise that the Fed’s balance sheet grew for over a year after QE ended. Reinvestment can keep pressure on longer-term rates as the Fed deploys its reinvestment across the curve. Its role in monetary policy will grow as short-dated bonds mature.
The Fed’s reinvestment policy is vital, considering the impact of rising rates and a shrinking balance sheet on fiscal policy. In 2007, the government paid $430 billion in interest on $9 trillion of debt. In 2015, the total interest paid on $19 trillion was about $402 billion. Like many Americans, Treasury has more debt and pays less interest.
If that is not enough to encourage the Fed to keep interest rates low, consider that Treasury effectively pays zero interest on T-bonds that the Fed keeps on its balance sheet (most of the interest Treasury pays to the Fed is given back to Treasury as profit). Higher rates and a shrinking balance would certainly create new burdens that might not be offset by economic growth.
Fiscal realities and the fear of adverse economic shocks drive the Fed to keep long rates lower. Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer recently said a larger balance sheet is accommodative and reduces risks to the economy. This would explain why the yield curve has flattened since December, as the market digested the distinction between higher fed-funds rates and an easy long-rate policy.
Raising the fed-funds rate demonstrates confidence in the economy; lowering long-term rates may be what is necessary to make that perception a reality. Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently described longer-term “rate targeting” as a possible tool that the Fed could use to stimulate growth. With rate targeting, the Fed would peg long-term interest rates while creating a ceiling for long-term Treasury debt. Though he declared that such an “exotic” approach is not likely in the foreseeable future, he pointed out that “public beliefs about these tools may influence expectations.”
If the Fed continues to emphasize that it will be reinvesting in long bonds for some time, it can change public perception of rising short rates to navigate long rates lower without using exotic tools. On the path to normalization, the Fed then would maintain the flexibility to raise the fed-funds rate while keeping long rates low. [So we move into an inverted yield curve? That is supposed to signal tightening credit.]
Such an accommodative stance would help our economy grow while relieving some of the fiscal pressure. This is how the Fed’s balance sheet can buy time until we arrive at a point where the inflation data confirm that we are not zombies after all. [So, inflation is going to save us? Why, instead, does a little deflation scare the Fed so much? Because we are over-leveraged with cheap credit?]