September 6, 2016

Some analysts argue that the US economy is strong enough to handle some rate-hiking by the Fed. Others argue that with the economy growing slowly the Fed should err on the side of caution and continue to postpone its next rate hike. Still others argue that the economy is so weak that the Fed not only shouldn’t hike its targeted interest rate, it should be seriously considering a rate CUT and other stimulus measures. All of these arguments are based on a false premise.

The false premise is that the economy is boosted by forcing interest rates to be lower than they would otherwise be. It should be obvious — although apparently it isn’t — that an economy can’t be helped by falsifying the most important of all price signals.

When a central bank intervenes to make interest rates lower than they would be in a free market, a number of things happen and none of these things are beneficial to the overall economy.

First, there will be a forced wealth transfer from savers to borrowers, leading to less saving. To understand why this is an economic problem in addition to being an ethical problem, think of savings as the economy’s seed corn. Consume enough of the seed corn and there will be no future crop.

Second, construction, mining and other projects that would not be economically viable in a less artificial monetary environment are temporarily made to look viable. A result is that a lot of real resources are directed towards projects that end up failing.

Third, investors seeking an income stream are forced to take bigger risks to meet their requirements and/or obligations. In effect, conservative investors are forced to become aggressive speculators. This inevitably leads to massive and widespread losses down the track.

Fourth, debt becomes irresistibly attractive and starts being used in counter-productive ways. The best example from the recent past is the trend of US corporations taking-on increasing amounts of debt for the sole purpose of buying back their own equity. Going down this path is a much quicker way of boosting earnings per share than investing in the growth of the business, so, naturally, the increasing popularity of debt-financed share buy-backs has gone hand-in-hand with reduced capital spending.

Fifth, “defined benefit” pension funds end up with huge deficits.

The reality is that the economy cannot possibly be helped by centrally forcing interest rates to be either lower or higher than they would be if ‘the market’ were allowed to work. The whole debate about whether the US economy is strong enough to handle another Fed rate hike is therefore off base.

The right question is: How much more of the Fed’s interest-rate manipulation can the US economy tolerate?

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