Friday, April 18, 2014

Thoughts from the Frontline: The Unintended Consequences of ZIRP

by Roger on November 18, 2013

This guest editorial by John Mauldin of Mauldin Economics


John Mauldin

Yellen’s coronation was this week. Art Cashin mused that it was a wonder some senator did not bring her a corsage: it was that type of confirmation hearing. There were a few interesting questions and answers, but by and large we heard what we already knew. And what we know is that monetary policy is going to be aggressively biased to the easy side for years, or at least that is the current plan. Far more revealing than the testimony we heard on Thursday were the two very important papers that were released last week by the two most senior and respected Federal Reserve staff economists. As Jan Hatzius at Goldman Sachs reasoned, it is not credible to believe that these papers and the thinking that went into them were not broadly approved by both Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen.

Essentially the papers make an intellectual and theoretical case for an extended period of very low interest rates and, in combination with other papers from both inside and outside the Fed from heavyweight economists, make a strong case for beginning to taper sooner rather than later, but for accompanying that tapering with a commitment to an even more protracted period of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). In this week’s letter we are going analyze these papers, as they are critical to understanding the future direction of Federal Reserve policy. Secondly, we’ll look at what I think may be some of the unintended consequences of long-term ZIRP.

We are going to start with an analysis by Gavyn Davies of the Financial Times. He writes on macroeconomics and is one of the more of the astute observers I read. I commend his work to you. Today, rather than summarize his analysis, I feel it is more appropriate to simply quote parts of it. (I will intersperse comments, unindented.) The entire piece can be found here.

While the markets have become obsessively focused on the date at which the Fed will start to taper its asset purchases, the Fed itself, in the shape of its senior economics staff, has been thinking deeply about what the stance of monetary policy should be after tapering has ended. This is reflected in two papers to be presented to the annual IMF research conference this week by William English and David Wilcox, who have been described as two of the most important macro-economists working for the FOMC at present. At the very least, these papers warn us what the FOMC will be hearing from their staff economists in forthcoming meetings.

The English paper extends the conclusions of Janet Yellen’s “optimal control speeches” in 2012, which argued for pre-committing to keep short rates “lower-for-longer” than standard monetary rules would imply. The Wilcox paper dives into the murky waters of “endogenous supply”, whereby the Fed needs to act aggressively to prevent temporary damage to US supply potential from becoming permanent. The overall message implicitly seems to accept that tapering will happen broadly on schedule, but this is offset by super-dovishness on the forward path for short rates.

The papers are long and complex, and deserve to be read in full by anyone seriously interested in the Fed’s thought processes. They are, of course, full of caveats and they acknowledge that huge uncertainties are involved. But they seem to point to three main conclusions that are very important for investors.

1. They have moved on from the tapering decision.

Both papers give a few nods in the direction of the tapering debate, but they are written with the unspoken assumption that the expansion of the balance sheet is no longer the main issue. I think we can conclude from this that they believe with a fairly high degree of certainty that the start and end dates for tapering will not be altered by more than a few months either way, and that the end point for the total size of the balance sheet is therefore also known fairly accurately. From now on, the key decision from their point of view is how long to delay the initial hike in short rates, and exactly how the central bank should pre-commit on this question. By omission, the details of tapering are revealed to be secondary.

Yellen said as much in her testimony. In response to a question about QE, she said, “I would agree that this program [QE] cannot continue forever, that there are costs and risks associated with the program.”

The Fed have painted themselves into a corner of their own creation. They are clearly very concerned about the stock market reaction even to the mere announcement of the onset of tapering. But they also know they cannot continue buying $85 billion of assets every month. Their balance sheet is already at $4 trillion and at the current pace will expand by $1 trillion a year. Although I can find no research that establishes a theoretical limit, I do believe the Fed does not want to find that limit by running into a wall. Further, it now appears that they recognize that QE is of limited effectiveness with market valuations where they are, and so for practical purposes they need to begin to withdraw QE.

But rather than let the market deal with the prospect of an end to an easy monetary policy (which everyone recognizes has to draw to an end at some point), they are now looking at ways to maintain the illusion of the power of the Federal Reserve. And they are right to be concerned about the market reaction, as was pointed out in a recent note from Ray Dalio and Bridgewater, as analyzed by Zero Hedge:

“The Fed’s real dilemma is that its policy is creating a financial market bubble  that is large relative to the pickup in the economy that it is producing,” Bridgewater notes, as the relationship between US equity markets and the Fed’s balance sheet (here and here for example) and “disconcerting disconnects” (here and here) indicate how the Fed is “trapped.” However, as the incoming Yellen faces up to her “tough” decisions to taper or not, Ray Dalio’s team is concerned about something else – “We’re not worried about whether the Fed is going to hit or release the gas pedal, we’re worried about whether there’s much gas left in the tank and what will happen if there isn’t.

Dalio then outlines their dilemma neatly. “…The dilemma the Fed faces now is that the tools currently at its disposal are pretty much used up, in that interest rates are at zero and US asset prices have been driven up to levels that imply very low levels of returns relative to the risk, so there is very little ability to stimulate from here if needed. So the Fed will either need to accept that outcome, or come up with new ideas to stimulate conditions.”

The new ideas that Bridgewater and everyone else are looking for are in the papers we are examining. Returning to Davies work (emphasis below is mine!):

2. They think that optimal monetary policy is very dovish indeed on the path for rates.

Both papers conduct optimal control exercises of the Yellen-type. These involve using macro-economic models to derive the path for forward short rates that optimise the behaviour of inflation and unemployment in coming years. The message is familiar: the Fed should pre-commit today to keep short rates at zero for a much longer period than would be implied by normal Taylor Rules, even though inflation would temporarily exceed 2 per cent, and unemployment would drop below the structural rate. This induces the economy to recover more quickly now, since real expected short rates are reduced.

Compared to previously published simulations, the new ones in the English paper are even more dovish. They imply that the first hike in short rates should be in 2017, a year later than before. More interestingly, they experiment with various thresholds that could be used to persuade the markets that the Fed really, really will keep short rates at zero, even if the economy recovers and inflation exceeds target. They conclude that the best way of doing this may be to set an unemployment threshold at 5.5 per cent, which is 1 per cent lower than the threshold currently in place, since this would produce the best mix of inflation and unemployment in the next few years. Such a low unemployment threshold has not been contemplated in the market up to now.

3. They think aggressively easy monetary policy is needed to prevent permanent supply side deterioration.

This theme has been mentioned briefly in previous Bernanke speeches, but the Wilcox paper elevates it to center stage. The paper concludes that the level of potential output has been reduced by about 7 per cent in recent years, largely because the rate of productivity growth has fallen sharply. In normal circumstances, this would carry a hawkish message for monetary policy, because it significantly reduces the amount of spare capacity available in the economy in the near term.

However, the key is that Wilcox thinks that much of the loss in productive potential has been caused by (or is “endogenous to”) the weakness in demand. For example, the paper says that the low levels of capital investment would be reversed if demand were to recover more rapidly, as would part of the decline in the labour participation rate. In a reversal of Say’s Law, and also a reversal of most US macro-economic thinking since Friedman, demand creates its own supply.

This concept is key to understanding current economic thinking. The belief is that it is demand that is the issue and that lower rates will stimulate increased demand (consumption), presumably by making loans cheaper for businesses and consumers. More leverage is needed! But current policy apparently fails to grasp that the problem is not the lack of consumption: it is the lack of income. Income is produced by productivity. When leverage increases productivity, that is good; but when it is used simply to purchase goods for current consumption, it merely brings future consumption forward. Debt incurred and spent today is future consumption denied. Back to Davies:

This new belief in endogenous supply clearly reinforces the “lower for longer” case on short rates, since aggressively easy monetary policy would be more likely to lead to permanent gains in real output, with only temporary costs in higher inflation. Whether or not any of this analysis turns out to be justified in the long run, it is surely important that it is now being argued so strongly in an important piece of Fed research.

            Read that last sentence again. It makes no difference whether you and I might disagree with their analysis. They are at the helm, and unless something truly unexpected happens, we are going to get Fed assurances of low interest rates for a very long time. Davies concludes:

The implication of these papers is that these Fed economists have largely accepted in their own minds that tapering will take place sometime fairly soon, but that they simultaneously believe that rates should be held at zero until (say) 2017. They will clearly have a problem in convincing markets of this. After the events of the summer, bond traders have drawn the conclusion that tapering is a robust signal that higher interest rates are on the way. The FOMC will need to work very hard indeed to convince the markets, through its new thresholds and public pronouncements, that tapering and forward short rates really do need to be divorced this time. It could be a long struggle.

On a side note, we are beginning to see calls from certain circles to think about also reducing the rate the Fed pays on the reserves held at the Fed from the current 25 basis points as a way to encourage banks to put that money to work, although where exactly they put it to work is not part of the concern. Just do something with it. That is a development we will need to watch.

The Unintended Consequences of ZIRP

Off the top of my head I can come up with four ways that the proposed extension of ZIRP can have consequences other than those outlined in the papers. We will look briefly at each of them, although they each deserve their own letter.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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