The Fed's Day of Reckoning Nears

The Fed may soon reap what it sows.

The minimum takeoff or “vertical rotation” speed (Vr) of a fully loaded Boeing 777 airliner is about 155 knots (175 mph) at sea level. If the pilot attempts to pull back on the stick and lift off the runway before reaching Vr speed, then the plane is likely to smash its tail into the tarmac and possibly even crash.

This aeronautical example is also applicable to monetary policy.

For more than a year now, economists have been predicting that the Federal Open Market Committee would soon increase interest rates—this after seven years of near-zero short-term money rates. Investors and economists alike greatly desire to see a Fed rate increase as a sign that the U.S. economy has recovered from the 2008 market collapse. But because economic consumption and demand for credit remain anemic, and debt levels in the industrialized nations have actually increased since 2008, any attempt by the Fed to achieve “lift off” in terms of raising interest rates is likely to result in an economic stumble.

The current debate about the direction of monetary policy is proceeding as though the U.S. economy were actually recovered. Some FOMC members and market observers want to see a rate hike to forestall increased inflation, an ancient fear that seems to be ill-considered. The global economy is still confronted by excessive debt and secular deflation, perhaps not in terms of prices for financial assets, but certainly when we look at wages, employment and commodity prices. Indeed, despite the efforts by the Fed to reflate the global economy, the United States seems to be suffering from a prolonged period of slack demand, low investment and weak prices for key industrial inputs.

For the past several years, the FOMC has maintained a target of 2 percent inflation as one of the indicators it wishes to achieve before changing policy, yet today that goal seems further away than when the target was first adopted. Indeed, consumption seems to be falling around the world, along with global commodity prices. Even the rulers of communist China have embarked upon a program to boost economic activity. Yet, ironically, the inflation hawks in and around the FOMC continue to warn of future price increases.  

Grant’s Interest Rate Observer reminds us that periods of secular deflation are often followed by steep increases in inflation:

Inflation may be hibernating, but it would be rash to count it out. Our five-year forward inflation swaps-rate gamble? On a hunch, we will say that the average rate will prove to be meaningfully higher than the 1½ to 2% now implicit in various markets.

Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said last week that despite weak job numbers and other bearish indicators, a good argument can still be made to raise rates at the U.S. central bank’s mid-June policy meeting.

“I think a strong case can be made that short term interest rates should be higher right now,” Mr. Lacker said in response to a question following a speech. He added that even with some signs economic activity might have softened over the start of the year, “I think the case is likely to remain strong” that rates should move up off of near zero levels by the June FOMC meeting.

Many investors and economists clearly are pressing for the FOMC to raise rates, but even if the Fed does act it is unlikely to move key rate benchmarks very much. Such is the level of fear of deflation within the Fed’s key monetary policy body that a quarter-point rate hike in June might be the only policy change during 2015. Moreover, if a rate hike were followed by continued indications of economic slack, then the FOMC might be forced to reverse direction, an eventuality that could hurt market confidence more than no action at all.

Many observers including this writer (See “Dangers Lurk in Fed's Zero Rate Policy”) believe that the Fed’s policy of subsidizing debtors at the expense of savers via zero interest rates— known as “financial repression”—is actually accelerating deflation. Low interest rates also damage banks, pension funds and other financial institutions, which survive based upon the earnings from their investments. Indeed, the chief beneficiaries of low interest rates are heavily indebted corporations and governments such as Greece and Japan.

Bond investor Bill Gross criticized ultra-low interest rates, saying that financial repression could harm global growth instead of boosting it in the way that many central banks intend. "Low interest rates globally destroy financial business models that are critical to the functioning of modern day economies," Gross, who oversees the Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, wrote in his monthly investment commentary. "Negative/zero bound interest rates may exacerbate, instead of stimulate, low growth rates… by raising savings and deferring consumption," he wrote, adding that pensions funds and insurance companies were particularly "threatened by low to negative interest rates."