Sunday, April 27, 2008

Some Hidden Costs of the Credit Crisis

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is likely causing dramatic distortions in the markets by lowering interest rates below the level of inflation and the impact may only be evident in retrospect. One side effect of the Fed's actions is a massive shift of the costs associated with the credit crisis from borrowers to savers. While negative real interest rates are helping some homeowners keep their payments down they are also fueling inflation resulting in a tremendous loss in value to those who have saved for retirement. Artificially low interest rates are also causing pain for those living on a fixed income through both inflation and loss of investment earnings. Here are a couple of hypothetical situations based on real stories I am hearing from friends and relatives to illustrate these distortions I am referring to.

The first story is about a hard working middle-class family headed by Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. They have worked full time for almost 40 years, raised a family, a dog and several cats, and have been preparing to retire. They have contributed to Social Security from every paycheck they have ever received, and have been frugal and lucky enough to put aside some money for retirement. They purchased their home 30 years ago and have paid off the mortgage through 360 consecutive monthly payments of principal plus interest. Everything was going along according to plan until, suddenly and without warning, the earnings on their investments began to plummet.

They couldn’t understand what was happening at first. Because they were getting close to retirement they had allocated much of their portfolio to fixed income investments, and some of those were falling in value at the same time they could not get more than a 3% return on CDs and Treasury securities. They went to their bank to get advise and were told that because the Federal Reserve had lowered interest rates safe investments were yielding very low returns. They took out their calculator and figured that if inflation is around 4% and the real interest rate is 2.5%, they should be earning 6.5% on a risk free investment. Instead they are being offered 2.5% on a CD, so the cost to them is 4%. Based on their retirement portfolio of $750,000 they are losing $30,000 per year! Even if they can get a 3.5% return the cost is still $22,500 per year. But that’s not all. If we believe that these low interest rates are also causing inflation in basic goods such as energy and food, the value of their retirement savings is declining. Where $750,000 may have been enough based on all reasonable forecasts just a year or so ago, now it is not enough because of the cost of living increases.

Confused and angry, Dick and Jane reconcile to the fact that they will likely not be retiring as planned unless they cut back dramatically and save as much as possible. They will delay any major expenditure until absolutely necessary, and because of inflation they have less to save. The $1,100 fuel oil bill drove this point home last week. A portion of their retirement has disappeared through no fault of theirs, and they wonder why. Why is it that with inflation getting worse interest rates are going down? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

The second story is about Cathleen, a neighbor of Dick and Jane. She retired from her clerical position ten years ago. Her husband passed away several years back and she now lives on Social Security and the income from the $250,000 portfolio of treasury securities, money market accounts, and CDs left from their lifetime savings and her husband’s live insurance. She can’t understand what is happening, but for the first time since retirement she must liquidate some of her retirement portfolio to pay all of her bills. Her Social Security income of $1,500 per month doesn’t come close to covering all of her expenses so she has relied on the interest from her portfolio for the rest. Last year her interest income was $13,750, giving her total income with social security of $31,750. This year her interest income was $8,750 giving her total income of only $26,750. Adding the rising costs of her medications, property taxes, food and energy she is for the first time concerned that she could run out of money. She wonders why, and she has decided she must cut back to only the necessary expenditures.

While lower interest rates are helping some homeowners with adjustable rate mortgages they are hurting savers and those living on a fixed income. Inflation also harms savers but benefits borrowers. At the same time, as between the average savers and the average adjustable rate mortgage borrowers it is the latter who have more culpability for the crisis in the first place. It is clear that the American people are paying the price of this credit crisis one way or another, and the question at hand is whether the distortions resulting from the remedy are making things better or worse as the burden is shifted from borrowers to savers?

There are at least three reasons for the Fed to be lowering rates right now. Let’s take a look at each of the primary reasons for the Fed to be lowering interest rates.

The first reason to lower interest rates when the economy is soft is referred to as the wealth effect. When interest rates are lower asset values tend to be higher. If mortgage payments are lower house prices can be higher because it is more affordable based on the payments. This applies to financial assets as well. As interest rates fall, in general, the value of financial assets rise. In practice, this effect makes people feel better off because their assets are worth more and this is good for the economy because when people feel wealthier they tend to spend more. This sounds great, but there is dark side.

When inflation becomes a problem rising asset values tend to be offset by rising costs. While keeping interest rates depressed may help support the value of certain assets it is also fueling inflation, and the inflation is countering the wealth effect. Low interest rates don’t always spark inflation, but in the current global economic situation commodity prices are rising dramatically and inflation is becoming a real issue. Lower interest rates in the US hurts the value of the dollar and sparks price increases in dollar denominated commodity prices. Anyone who goes to the grocery store or drives a car or heats a home knows that inflation is a rising problem today. So assuming low interest rates are in fact supporting asset prices the resulting inflation could be countering the impact because real values (adjusted for inflation) are not changing or are, perhaps, even falling. Is the wealth effect of lower interest rates working this time? I question its efficacy under current conditions when real interest rates are negative AND we have supply shocks in energy, food, and metals all at the same time.

The second intended effect of lowering interest rates is to spur business investment by making it less expensive for businesses to borrow and invest. This should also lead to increased employment as businesses hire more workers. Before businesses invest, however, they must believe that consumers will consume. Helping to keep mortgage payments down for a portion of the population will certainly help consumer sentiment, as will the resulting benefit of slower price depreciation in housing. But there is also a downside to consumers of low interest rates and the inflation we are now seeing. The retirement savings of the baby boom population are losing value to inflation, while at the same time low interest rates are cutting into the income of those living on their savings. The loss of real savings and real income (from both depressed interest rates and the impact of inflation) to the population of savers and spenders is likely to have a negative impact on consumption, especially as those close to retirement increase savings and those in retirement are forced to cut back on spending. This, in turn, could offset the positive impact of low interest rates on consumer sentiment. Consumers also have more debt as a percent of their personal income now than at any time in the past several decades and probably need time to pay it down rather than consume more. So will lower interest rates spur investment under these circumstances or simply prolong the reckoning while causing a very troubling inflationary spiral? There is certainly room to question the efficacy of further rate cuts on business investment in the current economic climate.

The third reason for lowering interest rates right now is to help rescue the financial industry in the US and prevent a collapse of the financial system. A major meltdown of the financial industry would certainly be a problem that would have a negative impact on all of us because it could result in a severe recession or even a depression. If the banking system becomes insolvent (meaning the banks do not have capital and cannot make loans) then anything people purchase on credit could suddenly experience dramatic reductions in demand, while at the same time businesses would find it very difficult to obtain funds for investment. When things get really bad you get deflation because there is simply not enough demand for anything to keep prices from falling. This may sound OK at first but in fact it is worse than inflation in many ways. Who will lend you money to buy a house if the value of the house is expected to decline next year? The same logic holds for a car or any other major purchase. Imagine your mortgage payment staying the same while your home value and wages drop – that’s deflation and it can spiral down the same way inflation can spiral up. At the same time unemployment would rise dramatically because businesses facing falling demand and lack of funds for investment would be laying off workers. This is certainly a situation to be avoided. So how does lowering interest rates help us lower the risk of this happening? Aside from the wealth effect and business investment helping the economy stay afloat, the lower interest rates help to support the value of assets on banks’ balance sheets (remember these are interest bearing financial assets). That means fewer write downs and, in turn, lower losses and more capital. The low interest rates also reflect banks’ cost of obtaining funds to lend, and when their costs go way down their profits can go up. More profit means more capital and more incentive to lend. So lowering interest rates helps the banks to preserve and add to their capital helping to lower the risk of financial system insolvency. Of course, if this is truly the reason for lowering interest rates right now one must wonder why banks continue to pay dividends to investors. If they are under-capitalized that should be the first place they go for capital preservation, not to the policies of the Fed. This is especially true when the Fed policies are creating distortions in the market and may not be helping to support the economy for reasons discussed above. If the financial system is in fact under-capitalized perhaps the Fed should be reaching back into its bag of tricks and figuring out another way to add capital to the banking system.

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