Thursday, April 7, 2011

ECB Good, Federal Reserve Bad

Today the European Central Bank (ECB) announced it was raising its interest rates from 1% to 1.25%. Given that the European economy, particularly the economies of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, are supposed to be in poor shape, that may seem like a dramatic tightening of the screws. It is not. Interest rates are still very low in Europe. Any shortage of credit, or of takers, is not due to interest rates being too high. 1.25% should provide good support to further economic expansion.

In contrast in the United States of America the Federal Reserve Board (the Fed) recently left its benchmark interest rate at zero. That is right, 0%. I admit I would like to borrow some money at 0% interest, but the Fed alone lends to its member banks. The same people who charge you 15% to 35% interest on credit cards. This unprecedented low American interest rate did not make much sense even during the Panic of 2008. 0.25% or 0.5% would have been just as supportive to the economy and the banking system.

We are now in a pretty ordinary recession, except the prices of certain commodities have spiked due to global demand and limited supplies. The Fed's public argument is that the low rates are because a lot of Americans are out of work. One thing I know, the Fed does not care about the type of Americans who are out of work, unless they are banking CEOs. They are keeping interest rates low for the benefit of the banks, of the federal government (it keeps interest on the national debt low), and for large corporations that can currently borrow vast sums of money at huge rates. In my role as analyst I have not seen much corporate borrowing used for industrial or work force expansion. It is typically used to buy back stocks or mergers.

The dangers of these unprecedented low interest rates are so clear that even a few Fed board members have pointed them out. They can lead both to inflation and to more asset bubbles. We certainly already have a gold and silver bubble. Bubbles were the problem in the first place. New bubbles do not a sound economy make.

Meanwhile, ordinary savers are suffering from low interest rates. Retired people are having to eat their principle because they are getting almost no interest from CDs and bonds. The Fed says there is no inflation, but if your main discretionary expenses are gas and food, there is a lot of inflation. Other recessions were not met with such low rates.

Since 1952 the Fed had set interest rates below 2% for only a few brief periods, before 2008. [See Federal Reserve rate history] Given that the Fed should manage for the long term (not acting like Wall Street traders who can't see beyond the current quarter), the Fed's rate should already be at 2%.

Given that (at least in free market theory) private loan rates should be set by supply and demand, that should not budge rates for housing. Anyway, low interest rates have failed to provide an incentive for people to buy homes. Homes are seen as a bad investment; people want easy money, not assets that are taxed yearly (with real estate taxes) and need to be repaired regularly.

The Fed are cowards. They don't want to tick off Wall Street or Congress (Republicans want low rates for their business friends, Democrats because they don't understand economics). 2% is very supportive of economic expansion. If we had already gotten there gradually (or were near there like the ECB is now), then further gradual adjustments could be made, up or down, depending on the genuine need for credit for economic expansion, or on the danger of inflation.

If I were the President (fat chance) I'd fire the bums on the Federal Reserve and hire some people who can actually do the job.

Data: ECB interest rate press release April 7, 2011

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