The negatives of negative interest rates

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump wants the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates to zero or to even allow them to go negative. It’s pretty obvious why: so he can avoid being at the wheel if a recession inconveniently hits before Election Day. He’s clearly freaking out about the election still more than a year away, as also evidenced by his decision to suspend some tariffs on Chinese goods.

Why should negative interest rates matter to you? It’s not like you can set up a Federal Reserve bank account. The Fed Funds Rate is currently 2.25%. This is the interest rate the Fed requires that one bank charges another bank to park its funds in their bank. It usually parked there only overnight. Any excess reserve a bank has on hand is money they cannot earn interest on. So parking it overnight at another bank allows them to make some money on it.

So what does this mean if the reserve rate is set to 0%? It effectively means there is no reason for a bank to park its excess reserves because it will not earn the bank any money. They might as well lend it. What happens if it’s a negative number, say -1%? Then effectively a bank takes a hit to park its money elsewhere. It would be stupid not to lend it.

A bank could pass its lower profitability from these lower rates onto its depositors. This happens routinely when the Fed Funds Rate changes. We bank at Ally Bank. When the Fed cut its rate by .25%, my savings and money market interest rates were cut by this amount too. Anticipating a rate cut, we at least did one thing smart: we took out a certificate of deposit for one year, which locked in our rate. We’ll earn 2.47% on it after one year, but not before. In general though most people don’t like to tie up their cash like this, so when the Fed Funds Rate drops, they will lose interest income. Better to take that money and risk it on investments is the hope.

Banks could in theory charge depositors’ negative interest rates, i.e. charge them for holding their money. (Considering all the bank fees we pay, some of us in effect already are!) They probably won’t, but accounts that effectively draw little to no interest at least one advantage: safety. Or do they?

Most accounts are fully insured because they don’t pass the threshold of $250,000 per depositor per bank. So yes, if a bank goes under you are likely to get your money back. But since the Glass-Steagall law (passed as a result of the Great Depression) was repealed in 1999, things have loosened. Banks can now invest in speculative investment with depositors’ money. This resulted in the Great Recession when banks loaded up on toxic assets to chase their bottom line. For them, the worst thing that can happen is they declare bankruptcy, which is what happened to so many banks in the Great Recession. The government got to clean up the mess and shoulder any financial losses, i.e. you and me assumed the risk.

Now, as the economy improved and Republicans controlled government again, these financial rules were loosened even further. In 2018, Trump signed into law new regulations that eased oversight on the largest banks, by raising the criteria for what comprises a very large bank. This results in less regulator oversight.

Add in low or negative interest rates though and we add a lot more risk to our financial system. Trump of course is hoping these low rates will incentivize banks to loan money, pumping up the economy. (It might also save him boatloads of money, if he can renegotiate interest rates on his loans.) But by incentivizing banks, we are in effect incentivizing risky loans. In short, we risk another Great Recession, or possibly another Great Depression by doing this.

Some countries are trying negative interest rates to stem deflation or deflation fears. Deflation occurs when money you have today is worth more tomorrow. In that case, there is no incentive to invest the money. Rather, you want to hold onto it, which means it’s not available for others to use. By making savers pay negative interest, it encourages them to loan out the money to stimulate the economy instead.

As a tactic for stopping deflation, maybe it has some merit. It’s working marginally in Japan, which has experienced years of deflation. But the United States is not in a deflationary environment. Hopefully though the Fed is instead trying to prevent deflation from happening in the first place.

Negative interest rates don’t have to lead to financial calamity, at least if they are properly overseen and regulated. But in this country it would be a very nervy thing to do at present. The Fed’s toolset though is very limited and well tried. The Fed’s policy of quantitative easing (imitated by lots of central banks) was one tactic of desperation after the Great Recession when the economy was still a mess even after virtually zero interest rates. Quantitative easing is essentially the Fed buying up investments others don’t want to buy with money the Fed creates out of thin air. They control the money supply, and can create money willy-nilly. That and low interest rates are about all the tools they have left.

A negative interest rate policy looks like the next and more desperate step to keep an economy from sinking into depression. It is basically a tool to use for deflation, which is what happened in the Great Depression. It’s like a fire extinguisher alarm: break glass only in case of emergency.

If investors though figure deflation is going to happen, they have an option: take the money out of the banking system and figuratively put it in the mattress. That way no one can use it but at least it’s safe, unless someone looks in the mattress. It’s more likely though they will move it to currencies and economies that are not deflating.

So hopefully the Fed will take a pass on Trump’s idea. In reality, the problems of our economy are structural and these tactics of the last ten years are basically stopgap measures. The Fed should have been doing more modest increasing of interest rates instead, as our economy, at least if it’s not in a recession, should be able to handle it. Mostly our economy is showing every sign of being over-leveraged and fragile again. If your economy is truly strong, you don’t need to even think about using these tools.

If this house of cards collapses again, it will be felt the way it was last time: soaring unemployment, wiped out savings. A lot of it will be due to risky investments, just like the Great Recession. If you are looking for a true revolution, another Great Recession or Great Depression is a good way to start one.

Monetary policy and the danger of revolution

The Thinker by Rodin

My recent post on quantum computing and its impact on cyber currencies like BitCoin have taken me exploring the world of money some more. This exploration took me to this video, which discusses who controls money and how it is created.

I think this video is meant to be shocking. Most of us are painfully aware of how important money is, because we cannot survive without it. While vital, money is also completely abstract. We like to think money is a form of permanent liquid value. This video points out the “shocking” fact that money is not this and that it is created almost universally by central banks, the Federal Reserve in the case of the United States.

As you get on in the video, you also learn that banks create money when they issue loans. If you were hoping to trade in your dollars for gold bullion, those days are gone. President Nixon turned the U.S. dollar into a fiat currency. This essentially means that the dollar has value because the government says it does. If it’s backed up by anything, it’s backed up by your faith that our government can manage money intelligently.

But really, the only ones managing money is the Federal Reserve, since they are the sole suppliers of money. The degree to which the Fed controls the spigot of money generally determines the health of the economy. Quantitative easing, which the Fed (and other central banks) have been doing since the Great Recession is basically the creation of lots of money which are then used to buy assets. Doing this helped pick up the economy and over many years took us out of recession.

So one might extrapolate that it’s not how much money that gets printed that is important, but how frequently it gets circulated. If circulated a lot, the production of goods and services continues apace. If it gets circulated too much, you end up with inflation, which means the same money buys fewer goods and services. If it’s not circulated enough, you may end up with deflation, which seems worse than inflation, in that the same money tomorrow buys more than it will today. In a deflationary environment, you would rather hold onto money than spend it, and that tends to stifle economic activity.

Lots of people like Ron Paul don’t like the way money actually works, which is why they would prefer the dollar be based on a gold standard, or some standard which equates a dollar to some amount of something precious. These people are probably economic Don Quixotes chasing electronic money windmills that may have existed at one time but which are probably gone for good. They look for impartial standards of value instead, which is why they turn dollars into BitCoin and similar electronic currencies.

The video says that central banks, being run by bankers, are a system that essentially pumps money from the lower classes to the upper classes. There’s a lot of recent evidence that they are right, as our middle class seems to be disappearing. Americans owe a lot more than they used to and in general earn a lot less in real wages than they used to. It used to be that wage increases followed productivity increases, but for decades that has not been the case. Today, the level of personal debt is staggering. Without meaningful raises, it gets harder and harder to pay off debt or do things we used to take for granted, like buy cars and homes. The Uber/Lyft phenomenon may be in part a reaction to these new facts of life.

Something ought to be done. In part, Donald Trump’s election was due to these economic anxieties. Trump was going to be our fixer to these various problems by bulldozing his way through all obstacles. Of course, he has done just the opposite. There is more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, but Trump’s education secretary Betsy DuBois is actually making it harder for people to pay off their student debts, and is promoting pricey private education at the expense of relatively affordable public education. So Trump is turning the screws even tighter on the working class.

Democratic presidential candidates have all sorts of ideas for addressing these problems. My senator, Elizabeth Warren, is distinguishing herself by having the most comprehensive set of policies for addressing these issues, including a lot of student loan debt forgiveness. All these policies though are basically ways of trying to solve the fundamental problem of more of our wealth going to the wealthiest and to put more money into those who need it the most. They all depend on redistribution of income from the wealthy toward the poor.

This “socialism” of course has the wealthy up in arms, since maintaining and increasing their wealth is all they seem to care about. So they are dead set against any of these ideas. Based on how our money supply works though, all this will do is keep pushing more of the wealth toward the wealthy.

It makes me wonder how all of this economic anxiety ends. And that gets me to figuring out what money really means. Money is essentially a social compact for the exchange of wealth, and whoever sets the rules controls the flow of wealth. The Fed is essentially accountable to no one. At best, all you can do is wait for someone’s term to expire. Trump’s inability to get people like Herman Cain on the Fed speaks to Republicans true values: they want the Fed to be populated with people that think like them, and that’s not Herman Cain. He’s too out of the mainstream.

To cut to the chase, the real threat to the wealthy is revolution. That’s exactly what happens if you screw the working class for too long. Revolution is upsetting the whole apple cart and starting over because the system is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed. I believe this is the root of the partisan tensions we see these days. It’s not about value, or whether you are white or not; it’s about money and who gets to control it and how it should be distributed and used. Revolution though is very dangerous. It brings severe economic disruption, likely civil war, complete upheaval and a fundamental reordering of society. Hopefully when it is over the new system is more fare, but as we watch these things play out in places like Brazil it doesn’t look like that’s likely.

Ideally, rich Americans would understand that giving more back to society is in their interest. Sucking ever more wealth from the lower classes exacerbates tensions and increases the likelihood of revolution. They don’t seem to believe it though, and want to maintain control of the levers of power. If they succeed they will likely bring about the real revolution that will destroy their wealth, because wealth is predicated on connected economic systems that work. Unfortunately, the rich seem to be deliberately tone deaf, increasing the likelihood of the exact outcome they fear the most. Should it occur, BitCoin is not going to save them.

As billionaire Nick Hanauer puts it, the pitchforks are coming.

Bitcoin is libertarian bit nonsense

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you intrigued by Bitcoin? It’s a digital currency much in the news these days. It even got a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Surprisingly the foundation overseeing Bitcoin came out relatively unscathed. Some places are accepting Bitcoins as payment for actual goods and services. They do so on the assumption the currency has value. Like any other currency it has value because some people assert it has value.

Which raises the question, what is its value? There are clearly things you can do with Bitcoin that are convenient. It’s a sort of digital cash for our electronic age. Only it’s not really cash. Real cash doesn’t leave fingerprints. You make a Bitcoin transaction and the transaction is recorded in the coin itself.

If there is value in Bitcoin, maybe it is from the faith we place in its math. There is not much we trust anymore, but you can still trust math, and Bitcoin depends on math, not to mention encryption algorithms, to assert its value. The number of Bitcoins has a finite limit because of the power of math and algorithms. Each attempt to mint a new Bitcoin requires lots of computers to spend lots of time and use lots of energy. For all its electronic novelty, it’s hardly an environmentally friendly currency. In fact, it’s bad for the environment.

You can’t say that about gold. Granted, the process of getting gold out of the ground is often bad for the environment, but once you have it, there it is, probably to sit in highly protected bank vaults and never to be actually moved or for that matter seen. A Bitcoin is entirely virtual but it depends on lots of computer hardware to mint and to assert its value. You won’t be creating one of these with a pad of paper and a slide rule. In fact, a Bitcoin is entirely dependent on computers and high speed networks. No wonder then that it was abruptly devalued last week when China blocked Bitcoin transactions. Keep it from being used in the world’s most populous country and it has lot less utility. Of course, it’s useless to anyone without a computer or some sort of digital device, not to mention some network so you can trade the currency. So it’s not even universal. You can’t say that about the U.S. dollar.

The larger question is whether a currency built on nothing but math really can have value. It does have value at the moment, as I can actually trade Bitcoins for U.S. dollars, which in my country is what everyone accepts as currency. In the long run though I think Bitcoins are going to be worthless. I don’t plan to own any of them and maybe I can make a case why you shouldn’t either.

First, there is whether counterfeit Bitcoins can be created. New ones can be minted if you have the computer horsepower and these are “legal”, but if they can be created for virtually no computer time then they would be counterfeit. Call me suspicious but I bet either the NSA has already figured out a way to hack it or will soon. In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Second, there’s the question of what its value represents. I’ve discussed the value of money before. My conclusion is that money essentially represents faith that the country coining the currency will remain solvent and viable. I based this conclusion on the observation that currency value falls whenever these assumptions are shaken. Having a currency based on the gold standard doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the United States has been off the gold standard since the 1970s. Printing new currency doesn’t seem to be that big a deal either, providing the new currency is used to acquire assets of value. This is what the Federal Reserve has been doing since the Great Recession: creating money (none of it actually printed, apparently) and using it to buy long term securities like mortgage-backed securities. Curiously, just printing money is not inflationary when it is used to buy tangible goods. This is providing that the institution printing the money is trusted, and the Federal Reserve is trusted. In any event, investors can value or devalue a currency based on examining its monetary system and the country’s economy. With Bitcoins, you can’t do this. It is backed by no country, which is its appeal to its adherents.

What is Bitcoin really about then? It’s about a political idea; more specifically it’s about libertarianism. It’s trying to be a means by which libertarianism becomes institutionalized. If you are not familiar with libertarianism, it’s all about freedom, buyer beware and minimal (and ideally no) government. Libertarians (at least the committed ones) are vesting their wealth in Bitcoins because it’s how they show loyalty to the cause. They want money to be frictionless and outside governmental control. Arguably, Bitcoin does a good job with this, providing buyers and sellers will accept it as having value.

But libertarianism is an idea, not a thing. Libertarianism is really more of a verb than a noun. A currency though has to be based on something real. The U.S. dollar is essentially backed up by the collective wealth of all of us who possess dollars, or assets valued in dollars, or really any property within the United States. It’s based on something tangible. You buy a house in dollars instead of Bitcoins because everyone in the transaction has faith that those dollars mean something. This is because everyone else is trading in dollars too to buy real goods and services. If the U.S. dollar gets too low, there are things we can do about it. We can petition Congress or the White House to take action. There is no one to go to to complain about the sinking value of your Bitcoins. Assuming the currency cannot be counterfeited, its only value is its finiteness, enforced by math and increasingly expensive computational processes to make new coins. That’s it. As those libertarians say, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Bitcoin buyers, caveat emptor!

This tells me something important: Bitcoin is a bogus currency, at least in the long term. Yes, you can buy stuff with it now, but only from a very limited number of sellers: those who have faith in the idea of a libertarian currency. It’s obvious to me that libertarianism is just not doable as a sustainable way of governing. I have no faith it in whatsoever because its philosophical underpinnings do not actually work in the real world.

I would like to see it in Glenn Beck’s libertarian community, however, if it ever gets built. One thing is for sure, no one is going to build it for Bitcoins. They are going to demand U.S. dollars.

The Fed giveth and the Fed taketh

The Thinker by Rodin

There are times when I tend to agree with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), the libertarian who argues that we should abolish the Federal Reserve. Granted, we created it to avoid banking crises in general (though it didn’t seem to stop the 2008 crash) and to even out the economic cycles for the American people. Of course, the big newsworthy thing that the Fed does is it sets interest rates. It has made interest rates so artificially low for so long that a lot of people are taking it on the chin. Others, principally well-capitalized debtors like me, stand to benefit from these artificially low interest rates.

Rates are low to stimulate the economy, or so Fed thinking goes. I have to wonder whether if rates were a few points higher the economy would really be that worse off, because our “recovery” is anemic at best. On the other hand, if interest rates were a few points higher, perhaps people would be more enthusiastic about putting money into savings, money market funds and CDs, spurred on by the higher rates of return for these relatively safe investments. Right now, due to inflation, savers are effectively losing money. While protected from large swings in the value of their capital, they are doing so at the cost of losing money on the deal or, at best, coming slightly above inflation.

Of course, the Fed is doing this deliberately. They want you to feel the pain of low interest rates so you will invest money in riskier endeavors instead, like stocks, bonds and mutual funds. This is based on the theory there that growth must come from the corporate world. Until recently many investors were happy to do so until, as I predicted, they finally woke up and realized their investments were way overvalued. This caused markets to decline precipitously and for investors to seek safety in U.S. Treasury Bills, now downgraded by Standard & Poors to AA+, but still good enough for Wall Street. Wisdom on Wall Street is now that it is better to lose a little bit of money by investing in Uncle Sam than a whole lot of money on a turbulent economy with few prospects of short-term gains.

In any economy there are going to be winners and losers. By deciding which cards it was going to play, the Fed has effectively picked winners and losers. In particular, it has disenfranchised savers. Specifically, senior citizens now are taking it on the chin, at least the smart ones. Those senior citizens who followed the typical strategy of selling stocks and mutual funds as they close in on retirement and using the proceeds to buy low risk CDs, Treasury Bills and the like have discovered their expectation of a reasonable income from interest on “safe” securities means essentially no interest on them, which means those investments really are not a good investment.

Many retired couples anticipated hundreds of dollars a month in interest income off these “safe” securities, figuring the interest would help pay some bills in their old age. Without the income, the Fed has essentially lowered their standard of living. Essentially they are paying the price so that five years ago brokerages could write shoddy homes loans. Effectively, we transferred wealth from prudent savers to reckless corporations in the shoddy mortgage writing business.

It is true that when these seniors sold their stocks and funds to buy these securities, they essentially locked in the gains for these investments made over many years. However, many seniors, particularly the well-capitalized ones, were hoping to live off the interest of these securities and keep the principle to pass it on to relatives. Instead, they are drawing down their savings to live, and at a greater rate than they anticipated. It’s a wonder they do not go down to the Fed en masse to protest, because arguably they are getting shafted. Long-standing economic rules were pulled like a rug from under their feet.

Americans in general are paying down debt and stuffing money in savings, but they too are getting shafted. Because of inflation, they are also losing money on their savings, and saving money is supposed to be a virtue. While it will be nice to have a stash of ready capital on hand when future unplanned expenses come up, they will be penalized for the privilege. This is their reward for paying down their credit card balances? This is the reward for being prudent?

Who is winning with interest rates so cheap? You would think it would be small businesses, but with the economy so fragile, they are finding it hard to get loans. If they get them at all, unless their credit is sterling, they are probably paying more than they should because of the risky economy. Of course, these days larger corporations often don’t need to borrow any money. Their bank accounts are stuffed, thank you very much, because they have become so efficient from laying off people or getting their labor at a discount. Even though business is down, thanks to these efficiencies coming at the expense of others, profits are up. Many companies are taking advantage of their hordes of cash and sagging stock prices to buy up shares of their own company at a discount. That’s good for them, but arguably it does nothing to stimulate the economy.

The winners are also people like me who are well capitalized, have an asset with plenty of equity and a steady job. My financial adviser wants me to refinance our mortgage. It seemed sort of pointless to go through the expense with the balance down to about $66K. Moreover, we already refinanced it once before. Thanks to his badgering, I called the credit union today to run the numbers. I found I could turn my 30-year loan into a 10-year loan, drop my interest rate four percent for about $2300 in closing costs. The effect would to drop my monthly payment $400. Duh! I should have done this months ago! It’s great for me to effectively have another $4800 a year in unearned income a year. But even someone who never studied finance like me knows that borrowing money at a 2.875% is crazy and artificially low. I have to wonder if home loan interest rates will ever be this low again. I figure someone will get shafted by refinancing our home loan.

One thing is for sure: I am not stimulating the economy, except for making business for mortgage processors. Maybe I am shafting senior citizens from getting decent interest rates. All I know is with money so artificially cheap that I’d be a fool not to grab it. So maybe I want the Federal Reserve to survive after all, at least as long as I can stay a financial winner.

The turmoil in the markets also means that those with capital and a long-term vision should be bargain hunting in the stock market. Alas, as my mortgage indicates I am still a debtor, but if I had spare cash lying around I’d be buying undervalued stocks. Maybe once my mortgage payment is reduced $400 a month, I should invest the difference in stocks. The future is always impossible to predict, but it’s not hard to predict that interest rates will stay at rock bottom rates for years to come. It’s a pretty good bet that we have at least a few more years of a sour economy as well.