Paradoxical predictions: The Fed building in Washington. The Fed has confirmed its two paradoxical predictions: that the economy is recovering faster than expected; but the interest rates will nevertheless have to stay near zero for some time yet. — Reuters LIQUIDITY is plentiful – money is cheap. The Federal Reserve signalled that benchmark, short-term interest rates “would likely be held near zero until 2023.” I am reminded of the period following the last recession, when super-low rates lasted for seven years. We live in a bizarre monetary world. The Fed has since confirmed its two paradoxical predictions: that the economy is recovering faster than expected; but the interest rates will nevertheless have to stay near zero for some time yet. This reflects a combination of factors, including the stabilising economic outlook, the expectation that the Fed will continue to hold short-term Treasury yields low, and it will be less aggressive in its interventions in the market for long-dated government debt. In my view, a slightly steeper yield curve is healthy. But, it runs the risk that longer-debt bond yields can rise too far, too fast. In which case, the Fed can be expected to adjust its purchases accordingly, so as not to risk a tightening of financial conditions that undermine economic recovery. The Fed has enough tools to make sure that this does not get out of hand. As I see it, the Fed’s move merely puts more specificity on its new inflation targeting policy. In June, the Fed’s prediction of 2020 GDP was -6.5%; 90 days later, it’s only -3.7%. The median jobless rate prediction in June for the end of 2020 was 9.3%; now is 7.6%. Even discounting for the uncertainties of Covid-19, these appear to be large misses. Nevertheless, the Fed’s most recent forecast sees healthy growth continuing for three more years, with unemployment falling to 4% in 2023, GDP rising at 2.5%, inflation at 2%, while interest rates stay at near zero. Today, global savers and borrowers face new, possibly more difficult choices. Over the previous decade, for example, the yield on safe 10-year US government debt averaged about 2.4%; today it is hovering just about 0.7%. In Malaysia, fixed-deposit rates have held steady at historically low levels: with six-month to three-year deposits rising from below 2% to around 2%; 30-year mortgages are set in the region of 3%, with overdrafts priced also at around 3-3½%. Low rates are expected to boost growth. They may encourage some people to buy homes or refinance them, even as others consider delaying retirement or postponing other money milestones. Whether super-low rates present an opportunity or peril depends on where you fall on the borrowing-saving spectrum. Here’s how I see the impact of near-zero rates for the next few years. Cheap loans Mortgage rates are likely to stay low. The average rate on a 30-year US fixed mortgage is 2.87%, near its lowest level in about half a century. That is likely to spur more home buying, though some caution is warranted. Frankly, I will not encourage anyone to rush out and buy a home just because rates are low. At the right point in your life, that’s when you want to buy a home. Historically low mortgage rates have already spurred a refinancing wave earlier on: The desire to refinance will likely slacken, since a considerable share of the market has already done that. In many cases, US banks are setting refinance rates higher than rates for original home purchases. Also, credit card offers are recovering. US lenders are mailing out more and more to potential customers. However, credit card interest rates are not dropping quickly enough. They maybe edging down a little bit, but it may not be for quite some time. Banks are hesitant to bring rates down, being fearful about non-performing loans’ losses. Who will benefit? Borrowers with good credit standing will benefit most from super-low rates. But banks are, at the same time, tightening lending criteria. That means riskier borrowers may be left out. Consumers should be aware, and not just look at the rate advertised, which don’t always reflect the effective rate, i.e. the rate actually charged, all in. Meanwhile, those who save, invest or lend can also suffer in this rate environment. This is especially true when it comes to cash. Those with so-called high-yield savings accounts already saw rates dropping of late. Banks usually pass-on falling rates very quickly. Another group that gets hit: those who are approaching a life event that requires holdings that produce a steady income stream. Examples are people with target-date savings vehicle, such as retirement or education savings accounts. These typically shift more money into bonds and cash as retirement or college approaches. But those assets are now likely to yield far less and so will produce less income. Would-be retirees could see it as “getting both feet stomped on and then kicked in the knee.” Yes, if you are dependent on interest income, relying on conservative investments, the returns will fall. More risk While low rates may tempt some people to take on more risk, don’t ever forget: We’re still in a pandemic. Things will remain uncertain. Rates can wobble and are rather unpredictable. They can even surprise. In this environment of easy money, the temptation is there to spend more and invest in riskier assets. A longer-term environment with low interest rates can mean different things to different people – often multiple things to the same person. So, you need to watch out and be careful. Some people may benefit from keeping money stored up in emergency funds rather than taking on more risk at this time. My advice: Don’t chase yield without being mindful of the risk. We’re still not out of the woods with Covid-19. I’d caution people: Don’t get greedy. What then are we to do Empirical research points to the pandemic being the latest shock bearing down on the natural rate of interest, mainly because (i) it boosts the desire to hoard cash; (ii) it buoys demand for safe assets; and (iii) it raises income inequality. Working against these forces is the enormous rise in government debt – in theory, soaking-up savings and pushing up interest rates. In practice, like Japan, central banks have bought up much of the debt in a bid to create growth and inflation by keeping long-term rates low. In the process, central banks are deprived of their traditional tool for fighting recessions. At the same time, investors find it harder to hedge risk (with yields near zero), and bond prices can’t rise much further. The most monetary policy can do is to keep long-term rates low, in the face of fiscal stimulus bringing about moderate inflationary conditions. Unfortunately, low interest rates also mean high asset prices, accompanied by income inequality. They threaten the social contract. This fragility leaves government with a dilemma – to raise deficits in an attempt to break low inflation, low interest rates; or to rein in borrowing to cap the debt/GDP ratio. This dilemma requires a fundamental re-think of orthodox economic policy on effective macroeconomic management. Former banker, Harvard educated economist and British Chartered Scientist, Prof Tan Sri Lin See-Yan of Sunway University is the author of “Trying Troubled Times Amid Trauma &Tumult, 2017–2019” (Pearson, 2019). Feedback is most welcome. Views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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