The "Neutral Rate"

Doug Nolan

The neutral (or natural) rate of interest is the rate at which real GDP is growing at its trend rate, and inflation is stable. It is attributed to Swedish economist Knut Wicksell, and forms an important part of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. The neutral rate provides an important benchmark for policymakers to compare with the market rate. When interest rates are neutral the economy is on a sustainable path, and it is deviations from neutrality that cause booms and busts.” (Financial Times/lexicon)

Wicksell based his theory on a comparison of the marginal product of capital with the cost of borrowing money. If the money rate of interest was below the natural rate of return on capital, entrepreneurs would borrow at the money rate to purchase capital (equipment and buildings), thereby increasing demand for all types of resources and their prices; the converse would be true if the money rate was greater than the natural rate of return on capital. So long as the money rate of interest persisted below the natural rate of return on capital, upward price pressures would continue… Price stability would result only when the money rate of interest and the natural rate of return on capital—the marginal product of capital—were equal.” “Wicksell’s Natural Rate”, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Monetary Trends, March 2005
Wicksell’s “natural rate” is a powerful analytical concept. In a more traditional backdrop, I would view the so-called “natural rate” as the price of Credit where supply and demand intersect at a point of relative stability for returns on capital. When economic returns are high, heightened demand for Credit (to fund investment) pushes up its cost. Over time, increased investment will result in an expanded supply of output and lower returns. Weak economic returns then engender less demand for borrowings and a resulting lower cost of Credit.

The hypothetical “natural rate” embodies a self-regulating system. During Wicksell’s time, money and Credit entered into the economic system primarily through lending for capital investment. And, importantly, there were constraints on the supply of “money” available to be lent. Banks provided the dominant source of lending, and they were subject to specific restraints on Credit expansion (i.e. bank reserve and capital requirements, the gold standard).

Wicksell’s “natural rate” is incompatible with contemporary finance. These days, finance is introduced into systems (economic and financial) with little association to economic returns. 
 
Indeed, the primary mechanisms for the creation of new finance are government (fiscal and monetary) spending and asset-based lending. Furthermore, there are no restrains on the available supply of Credit, so its price is outside the purview of supply and demand. For the most part, the government dictates the price of finance. This system is neither self-adjusting nor self-correcting.

Enter the current monetary debate: Things have not progressed as expected. Years of unthinkable monetary stimulus have failed to achieve either general prosperity or consistent inflation in the general price level. Fragilities are as acute as ever. So policymaker reassessment is long overdue. Not surprisingly, however, there’s no second guessing “activist” (inflationist) monetary doctrine. Central bankers are not about to admit that a policy of zero rates and Trillions of monetization is fundamentally flawed. Apparently, we are to believe that forces outside their control have pushed down the “neutral rate.” The solution, predictably, is lower for longer – along with more government spending and programs. So focus on the “neutral rate” becomes the latest elaborate form of policymaking rationalization/justification.

From Ben Bernanke’s August 8, 2016 blog, “The Fed’s Shifting Perspective on the Economy and its Implications for Monetary Policy”: “Projections of r* can be interpreted as estimates of the ‘terminal’ or ‘neutral’ federal funds rate, the level of the funds rate consistent with stable, noninflationary growth in the longer term… As mentioned, a lower value of r* implies that current policy is not as expansionary as thought… In particular, relative to earlier estimates, they see current policy as less accommodative, the labor market as less tight, and inflationary pressures as more limited. Moreover, there may be a greater possibility that running the economy a bit ‘hot’ will lead to better productivity performance over time. The implications of these changes for policy are generally dovish, helping to explain the downward shifts in recent years in the Fed’s anticipated trajectory of rates.”

Today’s monetary “debate” is reminiscent of Alan Greenspan’s fateful foray into New Paradigm worship. In particular, he viewed (going back to 1996) that technological advancement and attendant productivity gains had fundamentally raised the economy’s “speed limit”. Monetary policy could be run looser than in the past – and run it did. Such fallacious thinking was only temporarily discredited with the the bursting of the “tech” Bubble, as captured in a 2001 WSJ article:

December 28, 2001 – Wall Street Journal (Greg Ip and Jacob M. Schlesinger): “Five years ago, Alan Greenspan began pushing a reluctant Federal Reserve to embrace his New Economy vision of rapid productivity growth and rising living standards. Today, Fed policy makers are debating whether they went too far. The answer could help determine whether the current recession marks a temporary aberration in an era of swift growth, or whether the rapid growth of the late 1990s itself was the aberration. Mr. Greenspan hasn't lost the faith. ‘New capital investment, especially the high-tech type, will continue where it left off,’ he declared in a speech… He ignored the collapse of so many symbols of the 1990s boom, including Enron Corp., the sponsor of the ‘distinguished public service’ award he received that evening. ‘The long-term outlook for productivity growth, as far as I'm concerned, remains substantially undiminished,’ the Fed chairman asserted.”
New technologies are seductive. Rapid technological advancement coupled with momentous financial innovation proved absolutely engrossing. It was easy to ignore Enron, WorldCom and the like, just as it was to disregard 1994’s bond market tumult, the Mexican meltdown, the SE Asia debacle, the Russian collapse and LTCM. By 2001 it was rather obvious that New Age finance was highly unstable. Yet the 2002 corporate debt crisis along with the arrival of Dr. Bernanke to the The Marriner S. Eccles Building ensured that the FOMC pursued even more egregious policy blunders.

The Federal Reserve has been rationalizing loose monetary policies for 20 years now. Instead of Alan Greenspan’s electrifying productivity miracle, it’s a future of dreadful “secular stagnation.” Enron was little small potatoes compared to the frauds that followed. And the key issue from two decades ago somehow remains unaddressed: over-liquefied and speculative securities markets are incapable of effectively allocating financial and real resources. 
 
Moreover, central bank command over both the cost of finance and the performance of securities markets ensures dysfunction both financially and economically.

Contemporary notions of a “neutral rate” are deeply flawed – to the point of being ludicrous.
 
From Bloomberg: “The Fed aims to set short-term interest rates in relation to the ‘natural rate’—the one that would produce full employment without excess inflation.” Yet it’s not the Fed funds rate spawning “full employment,” and central bankers certainly do not control a general price level. It is instead the ongoing historic Bubble in market-based finance that dictates the flow of “money” and Credit throughout the economy. One would have to be a diehard optimist to believe either markets or global economies are on a “sustainable path”. 
 
Market participants have been incentivized to take excessive risks and to speculate, with central bankers clearly responsible for inflationary Bubbles that have engulfed global securities and asset markets.

There’s no mystery surrounding the sinking employment rate. Ultra-loose monetary policies (rates and QE) have stoked excess securities market inflation, boosting perceived wealth while fostering extremely loose corporate Credit conditions. Such a backdrop spurs business borrowing, spending and hiring. Still, ongoing pathetic growth and productivity dynamics, along with weakening profits, corroborate the view that resources continue to be poorly allocated.

A low unemployment rate concurrent with mild CPI inflation is no conundrum either. On a global basis, unfettered finance has spurred unprecedented over- and malinvestment, ensuring downward price pressures. To be sure, the proliferation of new technologies and digitized output has fundamentally broadened the available supply of goods. Moreover, at home and abroad, unsound global finance has fomented wealth inequality that plays prominently in the disinflationary backdrop more generally.

A low “neutral rate” might be consistent with an economic boom, or it could just as well be compatible with financial and economic collapse. Causation – the driving force behind either boom or bust - is found with intertwined and closely correlated global securities markets. Two decades of persistently loose monetary policies have created deep economic maladjustment and historic asset price Bubbles. And these days central bankers see resulting stagnation (growth, productivity, pricing power, profits, etc.) as evidence of a historically low “neutral rate” - that is then used to justify their runaway experiment in ultra-loose monetary management.

Back in 2013, in the midst of a bout of market tumult, chairman Bernanke reassured the markets that the Fed was prepared to “push back against a tightening of financial conditions.” 
 
In the eyes of the market, this significantly augmented/clarified “whatever it takes.” The Federal Reserve – and global central bankers more generally – could simply not tolerate fledgling risk aversion (“risk off”) in the securities markets that would impinge financial conditions more generally. The Fed would use its rate and QE policy specifically to backstop the securities markets, in the process sustaining Bubble Dynamics.

“Whatever it takes” and “pushing back” unleashed a precarious Terminal Bubble phase. With economic and market risks now so elevated, even the thought of recession or bear market has become unacceptable to central bankers.

There was a research piece this week from Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President John Williams, “Monetary Policy in a Low R-star World:” “The time has come to critically reassess prevailing policy frameworks and consider adjustments to handle new challenges, specifically those related to a low natural real rate of interest. While price level or nominal GDP targeting by monetary authorities are options, fiscal and other policies must also take on some of the burden to help sustain economic growth and stability.” And there was Thursday’s Washington Post op-ed from Larry Summers: “What We Need to do to Get Out of This Economic Malaise.” “I cannot see how policy could go wrong by setting a level target of 4 to 5% growth in nominal gross domestic product and think that there could be substantial benefits.”

Let me suggest what is going wrong. After several years of even a typical recovery, there would be the issue of mounting imbalances and excesses. With almost eight years of history’s most extreme monetary stimulus – including zero rates, massive monetization and the direct targeting of securities and asset inflation – there is surely an extraordinary degree of underlying economic maladjustment. One should expect an inordinate number of uneconomic enterprises, along with the now typical amounts of fraud and nonsense (that prosper on loose finance).

Historic excess and distortions have for years accumulated throughout the securities markets. 
 
The underlying amount of speculative leverage likely exceeds 2008. Eight years of Federal Reserve zero rates and liquidity backstops have severely perverted market risk perceptions. 
 
Literally Trillions have flowed into perceived liquid and low-risk securities – fixed-income and equities. Trillions have chased yields and returns, assuming liquidity and indifferent to risk. 
 
The unwieldy global pool of speculative finance has inflated by Trillions. Meanwhile, the Fed’s serial interventions to smother “Risk Off” has undoubtedly cultivated major latent fragilities within the derivatives trading complex.

The next policy course should be for Fed to begin extricating itself from market dominance. It’s absolutely crucial for the economy and markets to commence the process of learning to stand on their own. At this point, such a transition would not go smoothly. The alternative is only deeper structural impairment and more extreme financial and economic fragility.

The system has been put in a quite precarious position, but it’s time to let Capitalism sorts its way through. The very opposite seems ensured. We’re in the early stage of even more egregious government (fiscal and monetary) intervention in the economy and markets. The election will usher in a surge in deficit spending. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve appears poised to use a low “neutral rate” as an excuse to cling to ultra-loose monetary policies.

I am often reminded of misguided late-nineties dollar optimism. New Paradigm thinking had the markets content to overlook underlying U.S. financial and economic fragilities, not to mention massive Current Account Deficits. King dollar had become a Crowded Trade, although nothing in comparison to this cycle’s dollar exuberance. Curiously, the dollar index declined 1.2% this week. In the face of Japan’s deep problems and policy shortcomings, the $/yen traded below 100 this week (yen up 16.9% y-t-d). Despite the eurozone’s serious deficiencies, the euro ended the week above 113 (up 4.3% y-t-d). In general, emerging markets are a mess, yet many EM currencies have rallied strongly against the dollar.

Integral to the dollar bull case have been expectations that an outperforming U.S. economy would ensure rising U.S. rates and attractive interest-rate differentials. Yet king dollar excesses (foreign and speculative flows) exacerbated Bubble Dynamics, with market and economic vulnerability now having trapped the Yellen Fed in ultra-loose monetary measures. Global markets appear to have begun anticipating a weaker dollar. This would certainly help to explain the big turnarounds in commodities and EM.

If the Fed is hellbent on spurring inflation (at home and abroad), a weaker dollar could go a long way. But policy savants be careful what you wish for. After all, global markets are awash in Crowded Trades betting on dollar strength, disinflationary forces, low bond yields and market stability - as far as the eye can see. There is today no “neutral rate” that could possibly neutralize such a perilous global Bubble.

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