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Fed Rate Cuts

The Federal Reserve plans a few more increases in short-term interest rates in 2016, which should be welcome to savers who are not overexposed to market risk. The Fed took its first step away from the seven-year zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP) last week, increasing its target rate on overnight loans between banks (“federal” funds) for the first time in almost ten years. ZIRP was grounded in the Fed’s desire to stimulate the economy after the last financial crisis, an objective that met with limited success. ZIRP’s most profound “success” was to distort prices, with negative consequences for conservative savers, those dependent on retirement assets, and the long-term growth of the economy.

ZIRP necessarily constitutes a price ceiling when expected inflation is positive. It implies negative real rates of return, but real rates of time preference are not and cannot be negative. Given the choice, no one intends to forego present pleasure to purposefully suffer a loss later. The imperative to earn positive real returns does not end simply because the Fed and ZIRP make it more difficult. 

Anyone with funds parked in near zero-return assets, such as money market funds and certificates of deposit, earned a negative real return during the ZIRP regime, as inflation remained positive despite misplaced fears to the contrary. Those kinds of savings vehicles earn relatively low returns and should carry little risk to savers.

What are savers and retirees to do under a ZIRP regime? If they absolutely must defer consumption, they can accept the predicament and leave funds to decay in real value. They can dis-save in response to the disincentive, consuming their accumulated wealth. Some, for whom retirement is near, might even put more aside with the full knowledge that it will erode in real terms. But many will seek out yield in other ways, investing in assets bearing greater risk than they would otherwise prefer. All of these alternatives are likely to be less-preferred by the public than rates of saving and portfolios constructed in the absence of the Fed’s rate distortions.

The Fed’s policies and zero rates have contributed to inflated equity prices over the past six years as savers sought enhanced returns, and those valuations are certainly vulnerable. Over the past week, market jitters have shown the extent to which traders and investors feel threatened by the Fed’s tightening move.

The impact of ZIRP on the well-being of savers is only part of the story, however. Such a regime compromises the fundamental process of aligning preferences with the physical transformation of present resources into future consumption. Like any price distortion, ZIRP misallocates resources, but it misallocates across time and across sectors of the economy. When discounted at ultra-low rates, the values of future financial flows are grossly inflated, diminishing the need to set additional amounts aside today. At the same time, zero or near-zero rate borrowing confuses the evaluation of alternative capital investment projects. Resources may be committed to projects that would be rejected given accurate price signals. The artificially-enabled bidding for resources prompted by ZIRP, and the distortion of the risk-return trade off, might even cause more worthy projects to be rejected. And there is every reason to expect that saving by some individuals will be channeled into immediate consumption by others.

Who would do such wasteful things, undertaking projects with low or nonexistent future returns? Those facing distorted price signals, most prominently government technocrats for whom meaningful price signals are seldom a concern. And that also goes for the subsidy-hungry private beneficiaries of the state’s tax-extracted and borrowed largess. The ultimate consequence of this behavior is a deterioration in the economy’s growth potential.

Ronald-Peter Stoferle provides a short catalogue of ZIRP’s destructive impacts in the “Unseen Consequences of ZIRP“. One of his more interesting statements is the following, with reference to “zombie” banks:

Low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Banks are enabled to roll over potentially non-performing loans practically indefinitely and can thus lower their write-off requirements.

Thus, ZIRP promotes economic rot in several ways. Last week’s rate move by the Fed is a step in the right direction, away from zero rates and drastic overvaluation of consumption flows now and in the future. However, the monetary excesses of the past six years will not be reversed by this one move. The Fed is still imposing an artificial ceiling on rates. Even if that restriction is eased in further steps during 2016, the Fed is committed for the long-term to the manipulation of interest rates in the execution of policy. That sort of activist market manipulation is likely to continue; like all forms of central planning, it will be based on woefully incomplete information, a poor understanding of individual and market behavior, and bad timing. It will degrade economic conditions and have the classic boom-and-bust repercussions typical of central bank intervention.