Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Monetary Policy on the Eve of Destruction

The world’s central bankers will meet later this week at their annual confab in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The meeting’s topic is “Designing a Resilient Monetary Policy.” All of that is well and good, except monetary policy has reached a dead end. Simply put after eight years of QE, zero interest rates, negative interest rates, corporate bond buying and forward guidance all the central bankers have succeeded in placing the entire financial system on the eve of destruction.

To be sure their policies likely avoided The Great Depression 2.0, but that that was six years ago and along the way asset values were boosted to levels unimaginable only a few years ago. But not only does a low interest rate policy increase asset values; it also increases liabilities and undermines the profitability of the banking system. Simply put there is very little margin left in bank lending thereby jamming the monetary policy transmission mechanism through the banking channel.

More important the decline in interest rates exploded the explicit unfunded liabilities associated with public and private pension plans which now stand at $3.4 trillion (using private sector accounting rules) and $560 billion, respectively. In Europe the situation is far worse. The fundamental issue is that plan sponsors never contemplated a sustained period of extraordinarily low interest rates. Where once an 8% rate of return on plan assets was viewed as conservative, now a 6.5% return can rightly be viewed as aggressive. Similarly discount rates have dropped from around 6% to the 3-4% range. Remember bond math the lower the discount rate, the higher the liability. As a result under the current regime most plans are effectively bankrupt which will require either a cut in future benefits or a substantial increase in contributions/taxes. How can that be conducive to growth? Similarly the same dynamics apply to life insurance and annuities.

Moreover implicit retirement liabilities have also exploded. How so? In a low interest rate regime individuals have to put more money away in their 401k’s and IRA’s to meet their retirement goals. Thus instead of low interest rates working to reduce savings, the real world result yields higher savings, thus turning on its head microeconomic time preference theory. This phenomenon of higher savings in the face of lower interest rates and higher asset prices is one of the reasons that monetary policy has not ignited a consumption boom.

Thus when the central bankers meet later this week they had better recognize they are at the end of their rope. By excessively using monetary policy over the past eight years the bankers have destroyed its efficacy. As Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer noted last week, perhaps it is time for fiscal policy and regulatory reform.

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