Archive for the ‘Interest Rates’ Category

Why Worry About Climate Change When You’re $18 Trillion in Debt?

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Which crisis scares you more – climate change or our growing debt?

Climate change certainly receives a lot more attention in the media and a lot more attention from politicians, even if they’ve done little about it.

Last week, as one small example, President Obama said in an interview that his push to address climate change was influenced by an asthma attack his daughter Malia had when she was a four-year-old.  Asthma is a medical condition that has no connection to climate change.  It would be as logical to suggest that climate change cured her asthma, since she no longer has it and the climate has continued to deteriorate since she was four. National Debt and Interest 1 Wallace

We’re not suggesting that climate change doesn’t merit serious attention, but even if it’s as big a deal as environmental activists would have us believe, the U.S. is going to have little impact unless China, India and other ozone-busters get on board, too.

Debt, though, which President Obama and most members of Congress rarely talk about, just keeps rolling along.  (more…)

Bubble Busters

Monday, March 30th, 2015

“I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.”                                                                                                                                                                             Mitch Hedberg

When the news about U.S. markets and the U.S. economy is depressing, I usually read about Europe and feel better about the U.S.

I spent a lot of time reading about Europe this week, but it didn’t do much good – even with Greece continuing to defy logic by pretending that it’s OK to live off of someone else’s money.

The problem is that easy money policy is not so easy anymore.  It never did prop up the U.S. economy, in spite of Keynesian enthusiasm, but at least it created the illusion of economic health by propping up the stock market.  Now, it’s unable to do even that. burst-your-bubble

U.S. markets fell throughout the week, but especially on Wednesday, which saw declines of more than 2% in the Nasdaq and Russell 2000. The Dow dropped nearly 300 points, or 1.6%, while the S&P 500 finished the day about 1.5% lower.  The New York composite stock exchange is now back to where it was last July and the S&P 500 is approaching November levels.

And there’s likely to be more trouble ahead, as a 4% drop in the biotech and semiconductor sectors showed a “classic parabolic reversal,” according to Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group.  A parabolic reversal is a technical indicator that signals a change in an asset’s momentum.

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No Animals Harmed in Drafting Fed Policy Statement

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Thousands of years ago, Roman soothsayers would visit the oracles and interpret the entrails of slaughtered animals.  We haven’t advanced much since then.

Fortunately, no animals are slaughtered today, but many brain cells seem to die in the reading and interpretation of policy statements of the Federal Open Market Committee.  Like the soothsayers of old, today’s economists, journalists and pundits interpret the news and report it as fact – even though they generally haven’t a clue about what’s being said.  We’re not even sure the FOMC has a clue about what’s being said. Animal

The policy statements themselves are an anachronism.  In today’s world, most news is immediate.  By the time a newsworthy event ends, it’s been tweeted, blogged and reported on by anyone and everyone who is interested.

Yet the Fed issues policy statements on its Federal Open Market Committee meetings two months after the meetings take place.  Apparently, it takes the FOMC that long to agree on language that says nothing and can be interpreted however the reader would like it to be interpreted.

Many well-paid experts make a living off of these interpretations.  They will tell you, with certainty, that the Fed will definitely maybe raise interest rates sometime this year – or maybe next year – but they’re just guessing.

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Another Year of ZIRP?

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

When the economy recovers, interest rates will go up, right?

That’s been the Federal Reserve Board’s line for years now.  Yet as the Fed gushes about an allegedly booming economy, some are saying that interest rates are unlikely to increase this year.

So what gives?Interest Rate Chart

Last week’s Federal Open Market Committee Statement, which summarizes monetary policy, noted that since the FOMC’s December meeting, “the economy has been expanding at a solid pace.”  The statement notes that the unemployment rate is declining, consumer spending is increasing and, if not for that troublesome housing market, everything would be just dandy.

As if to put an exclamation point on the FOMC statement, Fed Chair Janet Yellen met with Congressional Democrats last week to reiterate just how fine the economy is doing.  (The real purpose of the meeting may have been to explain the FOMC statement to members of Congress, as it contains phrases such as, “underutilization of labor resources continues to diminish;” which could have been worded more clearly by saying, “Many former middle managers are still working as greeters at WalMart.”) (more…)

More Consideration of “Considerable”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Yes, we’ve already discussed the word “considerable” at considerable length, in relation to its use by the Federal Reserve Board in its recent policy statement.

But apparently we are on to something of a considerable size.  Maybe it was a slow news day, but The New York Times devoted an article to the Fed’s use of the word, noting that “Federal Reserve officials are looking for a new way to reassure investors that they are not ready to start raising interest rates.” 

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Commenting on the “considerable time” reference in the policy statement, The New York Times article reported that an account of the meeting “suggests that officials are trying to find a new way to say the same thing.”

Think about that.  Unemployment remains high, inflation goals are not being met, the Fed is holding trillions in bonds it will eventually have to sell and the stock market is acting wobbly … but the Fed is looking for a “new way” to say “considerable.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen could just say the Fed is not ready to start raising interest rates.  She could say the Fed is not planning to raise rates “for a long time,” which would be reassuring to investors.  Or members of the Federal Open Market Committee could go to an online thesaurus and come up with more than a dozen synonyms in seconds.

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Too Much Interest in Interest Rates

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

There has been much market panic of late over the possibility that the Federal Reserve Board will be raising interest rates sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Small cap stocks were the first casualty.  As September ended, the S&P 500 was still up 7.3% for the year, while the Russell 2000 was down 3.8% and off 7.4% from its high in July.  Even after being up more than 40% year-over-year at the end of December, the Russell 2000 was negative year-over-year on Wednesday before having its best day in six weeks on Thursday. 
20141002_RTY

As The Wall Street Journal explained, “Given that periods of market turmoil tend to buffet small stocks more than their larger counterparts, many investors in small companies are fearful as the Federal Reserve moves toward raising interest rates.  Even investors hopeful for small stocks are proceeding with caution.”

But should the markets be this skittish over interest rates?

In September, Fed Chair Janet Yellen announced that interest rates will remain low for “a considerable time” even after quantitative easing (QE), the Fed’s bond-buying program, ends.  QE is scheduled to end this month, but could be extended.

Economic data continues to be mixed.  The official U-3 unemployment rate dropped to 5.9%, but the percentage of Americans participating in the workforce is at a 36 year low.  Jobs are increasing, but four out of five of them are for low or minimum wages.  So QE could be extended, since its alleged purpose is to help the economy grow.

Even if QE ends this month, the “considerable time” Ms. Yellen cites could, indeed, be considerable, given the consequences of raising interest rates.

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Janet Yellen Takes Us Through the Looking Glass

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”  

               Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The word for today is “considerable,” as in interest rates will remain low for “a considerable time.”

How long is “a considerable time?”

Long enough, apparently, for investors, who boosted the stock market to yet another new record this week, after Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen announced that the Fed would keep interest rates near historic lows for “a considerable time.”  The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 17,200 for the first time ever, closing at a new high of 17,157.

Apparently, investors are like kittens, because, as Alice notes, “whatever you say to them, they always purr.”

Looking-glass-lewis-carrollCNN Money interprets, with certainty, that “considerable” means summer 2015 “at the earliest.”  Yet The Wall Street Journal, referring to the policy statement, admitted, “we have no idea what it says about the future of monetary policy.  We doubt even Fed Chair Janet Yellen knows.”

“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass                                        

Having read the policy statement, we conclude that it means whatever you want it to mean, as it contains more hedges than the Palace of Versailles.  Consider this single sentence …

“The Committee continues to anticipate (hedge 1), based on its assessment of these factors (hedge 2), that it likely will be appropriate (hedge 3) to maintain the current target range for the federal funds rate for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends, especially if projected inflation continues to run below the Committee’s 2 percent longer-run goal (hedge 4), and provided that (hedge 5) longer-term inflation expectations remain well anchored.”

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Less than “Less than Zero”

Friday, September 5th, 2014

In June, the ECB lowered the interest rate on bank deposits, including reserve holdings in excess of the minimum reserve requirements, from zero to -0.10%.  This week, surprising just about everyone not named Mario Draghi, the ECB lowered the rate by another 10 basis points to -0.20%.

14950766600_d52f0bba78_zAs we wrote when the less-than-zero rate was announced, “banks will pay a fee on money they fail to lend out.  Whether or not that stimulates the economy, it could encourage banks to take more risk, approving loans that otherwise may not have been approved.  Isn’t that what caused the financial crisis?”

Zerohedge explained that while rates were already negative, “Now they’re even more negative. Because in the world of Central Banking if something doesn’t work at first the best thing to do is do more of it. Whatever you do, DO NOT question your thinking or your economic models at all.”

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Only a Half Trillion Dollars

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

It’s a sign of how much trouble we’re in when a budget deficit of a half trillion dollars seems like fiscal restraint.

It is progress, given that annual budget deficits were running above $1 trillion a year throughout President Obama’s first term and have been as high as $1.4 trillion.  And it could have been worse.  Recall the effort made by President Obama to stop the automatic spending cuts that took place when sequestration was adopted.

But a half trillion dollars is still a mountain of money.  It helps to give the number some context.CBO Chart

To reach a half trillion dollars, you would have to spend $8 per second beginning with the year 0 and continue spending through today.  If you had a stack of $1 bills adding up to $500 billion and were able to put them one on top of another, the stack would be 34,000 miles high.

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The QE Apocalypse

Friday, July 11th, 2014

The end is near.

The Federal Reserve Board has now put a date on the quantitative easing apocalypse, letting us know that bond buying will end in October – unless the central bank changes its mind, of course.

The October ending is not unexpected.  The Fed has been cutting back bond purchases by $10 billion a month since last year and it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that there will be nothing left to taper post-October.

Yet this news, reported in the just-released minutes to last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, is being treated as a revelation.  It was, for example, the lead story in The Wall Street Journal, which typically doesn’t lead with news that was discussed last year and made official at a meeting that took place a month ago. Portugal

The real news, though, is what wasn’t discussed – the end of near-zero interest rates.  As a result, rather than pushing yields up and bond prices down, release of the meeting minutes had the opposite impact.

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