Thursday, July 15, 2021

Why Keep Interest Rates This Low?

 Financial FAQs


Inflation isn’t yet a problem, but are very low interest rates becoming a problem? Interest rates have been at record lows for years, thanks to the Federal Reserve that has been buying up enough bonds and mortgage securities to hold down longer-term rates as well. Is that good for most of US, or just the wealthy?

Fed chair Jerome Powell has stated it is to encourage a return to full employment by keeping the cost of borrowed money as low as possible. But this policy has mostly boosted assets owned by higher-income earners rather than wage-earners.

A recent NYTimes Op-ed by banking analyst Karen Petrou says just 10 percent of Americans own most stock assets that have benefited from the cheap money and approximately 60 percent of households own homes with values rising in double digits over the past year from record low mortgage rates.

The rest of US with less cash to spare must rely on accumulating unspent income in less risky, federally insured savings accounts that do not ride the boom-and-bust cycles of American-style capitalism.

The personal saving rate has spiked of late (see FRED graph) because consumers had little to buy until now, but that is transitory with the sudden re-opening of businesses causing inflation indicators to rise sharply.

Such an inflation spike is also transitory, said Fed Chair Powell in his latest congressional testimony.

“Inflation has increased notably and will likely remain elevated in coming months before moderating,” Powell said, in testimony delivered to the House Financial Services panel.

Ms. Petrou wants the Fed to raise interest rates sooner to encourage savings that would benefit wage-earners, she says, and mitigate some of the inflation that dampens consumer demand. She uses the example of investing $10,000 in stocks vs. saving money conventionally since 2007. Savers would have lost money after inflation with just a savings account.

I must say this Fed is doing a welcome about face from the Paul Volcker led Fed of the 1980s and 90s that raised interest rates at the slightest hint of inflation, thus tamping down wage growth while benefiting Wall Street investors. It was trickle-down economics on a tear.

“These corporate and policy decisions had the most adverse consequences for low- and middle-wage workers,” said a recent EPI labor think-tank research paper on the roots of inequality, “who are disproportionately women and minorities, the groups whose legacy of being discriminated against in labor markets means that they especially need low unemployment, unions, strong labor standards, and policy supports for leverage when bargaining with employers.”

It is difficult to credit Ms. Petrou with much insight into what benefits ordinary wage-earners. Higher interest rates will certainly deflate stock and bond values that rely on cheap borrowed money to reach today’s highs (stocks) and lows (bond yields) and increase the propensity to save, but how much can wage-earners save without higher incomes?

She is a bank analyst, after all, who will want to buttress lenders’ bottom line that increases profits with rising interest rates. And American’s historical savings’ rates of 5-10 percent should continue that have been in line with that in other developed countries.

The best way to increase the wealth of wage-earners, vs. wealth-owners is to boost their incomes, which in turn would increase wage-earners' wealth. Use governmental policy to increase labor’s collective bargaining position that has been severely weakened and rescind much of the anti-labor legislation that has created some 26 right to work states that do not require workers to pay dues to the union shop that benefits them.

The same credit tightening debate happened in 1937 when there was as much unemployment, by the way. President Roosevelt caved to Republicans that wanted to re-balance the federal budget after so much New Deal spending. But in cutting back on government support and raising borrowing costs prematurely, the 1930’s economy went  into a second recession, and became the Great Depression.

Harlan Green © 2021

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