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Lower Interest Rates Lead To Slower Growth

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by: Steven Saville
Steven Saville
Macro, commodities, long/short equity, bonds
Summary

In the short term, the manipulation of money and interest rates often seems to work.

In particular, pumping money and forcing interest rates below where they otherwise would be can lead to increased economic activity in the form of more consumption and more investment.

What's happening, however, is that false signals are causing people to make mistakes.

Editor's note: Originally published at tsi-blog.com on December 2, 2019.

[This blog post is a modified excerpt from a TSI commentary.]

In one important respect, the average central banker is like the average politician. They both tend to focus on the direct and/or short-term effects and ignore the indirect and/or long-term effects of policies. In the case of the politician, this is understandable, if not excusable. After all, the overriding concern of the average politician is winning the next election. The desire to be popular also influences the decisions of central bankers, but there is a deeper reason for the members of this group's short-sightedness. The deeper reason is their unwavering commitment to Keynesian economic theory.

All central bankers are Keynesians at heart (if they weren't, they wouldn't be central bankers), and Keynesian economic theory revolves around the short-term and the superficial. It's all about policymakers in the government and the central bank attempting to "manage" the economy by stimulating demand under some conditions and dampening demand under other conditions, with the conditions determined by measures of current or past economic activity. For example, if certain statistics move an arbitrary distance in one direction, then an attempt will be made to boost "aggregate demand". That the concept of "aggregate demand" is bogus is never acknowledged, because acknowledging that the economy comprises millions of distinct individuals as opposed to an amorphous blob would call into question the entire basis for central control of money and interest rates.

In the short term, the manipulation of money and interest rates often seems to work. In particular, pumping money and forcing interest rates below where they otherwise would be can lead to increased economic activity in the form of more consumption and more investment. What's happening, however, is that false signals are causing people to make mistakes.

One problem is that people are incentivised by cheaper credit to consume more than they can afford, which guarantees reduced consumption in the future. The bigger problem, though, is on the investment front in that projects and businesses that would not be financeable at free-market rates of interest are made to appear economically viable. This could seem like a very good thing for a while, but it means that a lot of resources get used in ventures that eventually will fail. It also means that the businesses that would have been viable in a non-manipulated rate environment suffer profit margin compression due to the ability, created by the abundance of artificially cheap credit, of relatively inefficient and/or unprofitable competitors to remain in operation.

In addition to the above, the persistent downward manipulation of interest rates leads to huge pension fund deficits. However, burgeoning shortfalls in the world of pension funds is a major economic and political issue that deserves separate treatment and is outside the scope of this short discussion. Suffice to say right now that the massive unfunded pension liabilities that have arisen due to the policy of interest rate suppression could be the excuse for new policies that are even more destructive, such as policies based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

Summing up, the policy of interest rate suppression promotes resource wastage and general profit margin compression. It therefore reduces economic growth over the long term. Furthermore, it's not so much that central bankers weigh the long-term cons against the short-term pros and opt for the latter; it's that their chosen theoretical framework doesn't even allow them to consider the long-term cons. That's how the head of the ECB is able to argue with a straight face that even though eurozone interest rates have been manipulated well into negative territory, more interest rate suppression is needed to support the economy.

Original Post

Editor's Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.