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Dollar Cartoon

Should government actively manipulate asset prices in an effort to “manage ” economic growth? The world’s central bankers, otherwise at their wit’s end, are attempting just that. Hopes have been pinned on so-called quantitative easing (QE), which simply means that central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) buy assets (government and private bonds) from the public to inject newly “printed” money into the economy. The Fed purchased $4.5 trillion of assets between the last financial crisis and late 2014, when it ended its QE. Other central banks are actively engaged in QE, however, and there are still calls from some quarters for the Fed to resume QE, despite modest but positive economic growth. The goals of QE are to drive asset prices up and interest rates down, ultimately stimulating demand for goods and economic growth. Short-term rates have been near zero in many countries (and in the U.S. until December), and negative short-term interest rates are a reality in the European Union, Japan and Sweden.

Does anyone really have to pay money to lend money, as indicated by a negative interest rate? Yes, if a bank “lends” to the Bank of Japan, for example, by holding reserves there. The BOJ is currently charging banks for the privilege. But does anyone really “earn” negative returns on short-term government or private debt? Not unless you buy a short-term bill and hold it till maturity. Central banks are buying those bills at a premium, usually from member banks, in order to execute QE, and that offsets a negative rate. But the notion is that when these “captive” member banks are penalized for holding reserves, they will be more eager to lend to private borrowers. That may be, but only if there are willing, credit-worthy borrowers; unfortunately, those are scarce.

Thus far, QE and zero or negative rates do not seem to be working effectively, and there are several reasons. First, QE has taken place against a backdrop of increasingly binding regulatory constraints. A private economy simply cannot flourish under such strictures, with or without QE. Moreover, government makes a habit of manipulating investment decisions, partly through regulatory mandates, but also by subsidizing politically-favored activities such as ethanol, wind energy, post-secondary education, and owner-occupied housing. This necessarily comes at the sacrifice of opportunities for physical investment that are superior on economic merits.

The most self-defeating consequence of QE and rate manipulation, be that zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) or negative interest rate policy (NIRP), is the distortion of inter-temporal tradeoffs that guide decisions to save and invest in productive assets. How, and how much, should individuals save when returns on relatively safe assets are very low? Most analysts would conclude that very low rates prompt a strong substitution effect toward consuming more today and less in the future. However, the situation may well engender a strong “income effect”, meaning that more must be saved (and less consumed in the present) in order to provide sufficient resources in the future. The paradox shouldn’t be lost on central bankers, and it may undermine the stimulative effects of ZIRP or NIRP. It might also lead to confusion in the allocation of productive capital, as low rates could create a mirage of viability for unworthy projects. Central bank intervention of this sort is disruptive to the healthy transformation of resources across time.

Savers might hoard cash to avoid a negative return, which would further undermine the efficacy of QE in creating monetary stimulus. This is at the root of central bank efforts to discourage the holding of currency outside of the banking system: the “war on cash“. (Also see here.) This policy is extremely offensive to anyone with a concern for protecting the privacy of individuals from government prying.

Another possible response for savers is to “reach for yield”, allocating more of their funds to high-risk assets than they would ordinarily prefer (e.g., growth funds, junk bonds, various “alternative” investments). So the supply of saving available for adding to the productive base in various sectors is twisted by central bank manipulation of interest rates. The availability of capital may be constrained for relatively safe sectors but available at a relative discount to risky sectors. This leads to classic malinvestment and ultimately business failures, displaced workers, and harsh adjustment costs.

With any luck, the Fed will continue to move away from this misguided path. Zero or negative interest rates imposed by central banks penalize savers by making the saving decision excessively complex and fraught with risk. Business investment is distorted by confusing signals as to risk preference and inflated asset prices. Central economic planning via industrial policy, regulation, and price controls, such as the manipulation of interest rates, always ends badly. Unfortunately, most governments are well-practiced at bungling in all of those areas.