It’s time for a jubilee

Seems like our world is going to hell in a corona basket.

I remember at the end of 2019 all my friends were saying they were never so glad to see a year end. 2019 was a miserable year. Now, most of us would prefer to be back to 2019. A recession that looks like it will become a depression and COVID-19, which may kill a million or more of us, seems like the beginning of the Armageddon that so many so-called Christians are looking forward to. Perhaps that’s why many of them were cheering Trump’s suggestion that everything go back to normal on Easter Sunday.

On that last point, I was going to make a blog post just on that, but I can’t possibly restate any better what so many others have already said about Trump’s unbelievable narcissism. Trump wants us to die so he can get reelected. The smart ones though are going to take a pass and will keep sheltering in place and obsessively washing hands and surfaces. I know we are. Evolution is not called “survival of the fittest” for nothing. For those happy to place emotion or devotion to an insane leader over rational behavior, well, you’ll be one of hundreds of thousands of candidates for the 2020 Darwin Awards. Clearly you weren’t reading my blog, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So rather than restate what so many others have already said, let me talk about something that isn’t being much talked about: the way our economy works appears to be crumbling. What do I mean by that? I mean the way we have been running an economy where the rich continue to get richer, the poor more desperate and in debt, and our government more dysfunctional is ripe. It’s not only not working, it’s not working badly for us. We are ripe for revolutionary changes. This upcoming depression (which it looks likely to be) should make us anxious for another New Deal.

It won’t look quite the same as the New Deal and hopefully any depression will be short lived. But our economy is loaded to the maximum with debt. Pretty much everyone, except the rich, holds it. That’s individuals and corporations, made possible by low interest rates since the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve’s recovery plan is to cut interest rates to zero or even lower, trying to coax us to take on even more debt. That’s because they don’t have any other tools to use. Trying to grow out of a depression based on taking on more debt that we already couldn’t afford doesn’t sound very sound to me. It feels desperate, as if we are desperately trying to keep the rules of our old sinking economy alive. The so-called $2T recovery bill signed into law today is an attempt to keep this hamster wheel turning.

I don’t think this will work. First, look how long it took us to emerge from the Great Recession. When we did emerge, our growth rate was always anemic. You’d be hard-pressed to find any quarter where our GDP increased by more than three percent annually. Our economy was like an overloaded subcompact running on three cylinders trying to merge onto the Interstate. It took a long time to get up to highway speeds. And while we technically recovered, we never really felt we recovered because we never fundamentally solved the problems that got us into it in the first place. The half-hearted attempts by Democrats in 2009 and 2010 were not nearly enough.

In fact, we went back and made the same stupid mistakes all over again, such as getting rid of much of Dodd-Frank banking regulation that was supposed to prevent it from happening again. The fundamentals of our recovering economy were never sound, but were propped up by low interest rates which had the side effect of causing markets to rise. Companies used cheap credit to buy back their own stocks, inflating their stock prices to surreal levels. The bubble would have burst anyhow; the coronavirus thing just made the hole gaping instead of possibly manageable.

What would really make the economy roar back when this pandemic is contained is a big haircut to a lot of creditors. Because an economy can’t roar back if overleveraged people have no cash to buy stuff. What we really need is a jubilee. This is where we force creditors to wipe their debt slates clean.

Take, for example, student loans. Last I checked, there were about a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, owed by people the least able to pay them back. Desperate for an education instead of flipping burgers for forty years, they didn’t have much choice but to pay usury interest rates for educations whose costs were vastly inflated. Let’s declare all that debt insolvent. The creditors will scream, but a lot of people will have money to spend again on things that matter like food and housing.

It could be done for lots of debts. Write off, say, 25% of mortgage debt on housing purchased for up to $500,000. Wipe out 50% of credit card debt. If you want to encourage thrift, revert the debt if more is incurred over the next five years.

And tax the rich. They’ve been bleeding the rest of us dry for too long, in the process allowing infrastructure and services to degrade. Institute Elizabeth Warren’s proposed 2% wealth tax. Raise rates just to where there were for rich households during the Reagan Administration. Tax dividends the same as ordinary income, or higher. Make work pay again.

Then do what we all know we need to do: make Medicare available to all. Much household debt and personal bankruptcies are due to medical costs that are out of control. Controlling medical costs frees up all sorts of money for more productive use. Institute living wages for everyone with annual increases that keep pace with inflation. Overturn right to work laws.

This is probably beyond a President Biden. But without it, I suspect a President Biden will discover what President Obama discovered: the system will work in counterproductive ways against the needs of the people instead.

Our election, if it can be held fairly, will likely put Democrats in control of government plus give them the margins needed to make real change happen. The question is whether Democrats have learned their lesson, and can institute the changes we need to make the economy work for everyone again.

If not, election 2022 will look a lot like Election 2010, and the crazy cycle will continue to repeat and move us into second world status.

The negatives of negative interest rates

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.