Downward pressure on the natural rate of interest (r∗) is often attributed to an increase in saving. This study uses microeconomic data from the SCF+ to explore the relative importance of demographic shifts versus rising income inequality on the evolution of saving behavior in the United States from 1950 to 2019. The evidence suggests that rising income inequality is the more important factor explaining the decline in r∗. Saving rates are significantly higher for high income households within a given birth cohort relative to middle and low income households in the same birth cohort, and there has been a large rise in income shares for high income households since the 1980s. The result has been a large rise in saving by high income earners since the 1980s, which is the exact same time period during which r∗ has fallen. Differences in saving rates across the working age distribution are smaller, and there has not been a consistent monotonic shift in income toward any given age group. Both findings challenge the view that demographic shifts due to the aging of the baby boom generation explain the decline in r∗. .
While the economic case for reducing inequality isn’t clear, a moral case can be made. One could argue that it’s wrong for the few to have so much while the many have so little. But it’s not the Fed’s job to make moral decisions about the ideal distributions of wealth. This is an inherently political calculation—one that should be addressed through institutions directly accountable to voters. Moreover, the tools at Congress’s disposal—tax rates and control over benefits, for example—are better suited for taking on inequality. And these policies involve costs, too, in terms of growth. Voters should be the ones to decide whether they want to pay them.
The Fed’s role is to balance short- and long-term interests, making the hard choices that may harm the economy now in exchange for long-term stability and expansion. Once politics are involved, however, it becomes difficult if not impossible to make this trade-off. The Fed can do what it does because it has a narrow mandate: reasonable inflation and maximum employment. It needs to stay in its lane.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said the Federal Reserve’s massive bond-buying program is resulting in a “bizarre” situation in which the government’s funding structure is overly focused on the short-term.
Under its quantitative easing program, the Fed purchases longer-term Treasuries and the money it creates to buy them ends up in the accounts that banks hold with the central bank, in the form of overnight reserves.
These reserves earn a rate of interest that’s linked to changeable overnight benchmarks — currently 0.15% per year. That, in effect is the rate the government, through the Fed, is paying to borrow this money.
At the same time, any payments the government makes on Treasury bonds to the Fed is ultimately a flow from one part of the government to another and, arguably, cancels itself out in the end. So the upshot is the government owes, in real terms, less longer-term fixed-rate debt and more shorter-term floating-rate debt.
The Fed cut its benchmark interest rate to near zero in March 2020 and has been purchasing at least $120 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage bonds to provide extra stimulus to the economy. Officials since the end of last year said those purchases would continue until they see “substantial further progress” toward their goals of low unemployment and stable inflation.
Officials said in a statement Wednesday, at the conclusion of their two-day meeting, “the economy has made progress toward these goals” this year and indicated they would “assess progress in coming meetings.”
That is a clue the Fed could outline plans to start reducing, or tapering, the purchases, later this year. The central bank’s next meetings are scheduled for Sept. 21-22 and Nov. 2-3.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said at a virtual news conference Wednesday that the central bank was nowhere near considering plans to raise interest rates.
It is becoming increasingly accepted that lowering interest rates might at some point prove contractionary (the “reversal interest rate”) if lower lending margins cut the supply of bank loans. This paper argues that there are many other reasons to question reliance on monetary policy to provide economic stimulus, particularly over successive financial cycles. By encouraging the issue of debt, often for unproductive purposes, monetary stimulus becomes increasingly ineffective over time. Moreover, it threatens financial stability in a variety of ways, it leads to real resource misallocations that lower potential growth, and it finally produces a policy “debt trap” that cannot be escaped without significant economic costs. Debt-deflation and high inflation are both plausible outcomes.
Author(s): William White
Publication Date: 5 March 2021
Publication Site: Institute for New Economic Thinking
Historically, bond yields have not been very good at predicting inflation.
In the last 70 years, bond yields rarely rose ahead of inflation, going up only after inflation takes hold. One study indicated that past inflation trends were a better predictor of bond rates than what future inflation turned out to be.
Does this mean bond traders are wrong? Not necessarily. It may just reflect that inflation is unpredictable and bond traders don’t know any more about the future than the rest of us. All they have is the past data and current prices to make their predictions, too. So when inflation suddenly spikes — as it has in the past — bond traders are as surprised as everyone else.
The sharp increase in consumer prices this Spring may be a blip but may also be a sign that inflation is returning as a chronic problem. For those of us who can accurately recall the 1970s economy, it is a frightening prospect. Everyone else would benefit from reading contemporaneous news coverage.
Recent events call into question pronouncements of the leading Modern Monetary Theorists who thought that the U.S. could sustain much larger deficits without triggering major hikes in the cost of living. Instead, it appears that the traditional rules of public finance still hold: deficit spending financed by Federal Reserve money creation is inflationary.
Analogies between today’s situation and the 1970s are not quite on target. By the early 70s, inflation was well underway. Instead, we should be drawing lessons from the year 1965, when price inflation began to take off. Prior to that year, inflation seemed to be under control with annual CPI growth ranging from 1.1 percent to 1.5 percent annually between 1960 and 1964 — not unlike the years prior to this one.
For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve has bucked investor expectations and taken a more hawkish policy stance. After months of projecting near-zero interest rates through 2023, yesterday the Federal Open Market Committee forecast two rate hikes by the end of 2023. With consumer prices and spending rising in tandem of late, the revised projections are a tacit admission that recent inflation may not be as transitory as the Fed has maintained.
“Is there a risk that inflation will be higher than we think? Yes,” said chair Jay Powell. The ten-year Treasury yield increased roughly 80 basis points to 1.57 percent after the press conference.
But the Fed’s revised policy outlook was not matched by an increased medium-term inflation forecast. The central bank continues to expect an average inflation rate of 2.1 percent over the next three years. Goldman Sachs’s macro researchers interpret that to mean that “the FOMC sees the 2021 inflation overshoot, which will bring the average inflation rate since the recession began above 2 percent, as largely sufficient to accomplish its averaging goal.”
Ever since the Fed adopted an average inflation target last summer, markets have been left guessing as to the time horizon over which the Fed would target 2 percent. Yesterday’s projections suggest it will be two to three years.
The Labor Department’s consumer price index surged 5% year-over-year in May, the largest increase since August 2008 when oil was $140 a barrel. But don’t worry, Americans. The Federal Reserve says inflation is “transitory” and that it has the tools to control prices if they start to spiral out of control. Let us pray.
Nobody should be surprised that prices are increasing everywhere from the grocery store to the car dealership. Demand is soaring as the pandemic recedes while supply constraints linger, especially in labor and transportation. As always, this is a price shock largely made by government. Congress has shovelled out trillions of dollars in transfer payments over the past year, and the Fed has rates at zero while the economy may be growing at a 10% annual rate.
The personal savings rate in April was 14.9%, double what it was before the pandemic. Record low mortgage interest rates have enabled homeowners to lower their monthly payments to burn more cash on other things. Congress’s $300 unemployment bonus and other welfare payments for not working have contributed to an enormous worker shortage, which is magnifying supply shortages.
All of this is showing up in higher prices. Over the last 12 months, core inflation excluding food and energy is up 3.8% and much more for used cars (29.7%), airline fares (24.1%), jewelry (14.7%), bikes (10.1%) and footwear (7.1%). Commodity prices from oil to copper to lumber have surged. Higher lumber prices are adding $36,000 to the price of a new home.
The Fed has embarked on a massive expansionary quest in recent years. In 2020, total Reserve Bank assets rose from $4.2 trillion to $7.4 trillion amidst the pandemic and related government lockdown and fiscal “stimulus” policies. That was roughly three times the extraordinary growth in the consolidated balance sheet for the Reserve Banks in the 2008-2009 financial crisis. And in the latest weekly “H.4.1” release, total assets were up to $7.8 trillion – rising about a hundred billions dollars a month so far this year.
Today, short and long-term interest rates on government bonds rest near historic lows, important in part because the Fed massively expanded its purchases of government bonds. But low interest rates can’t be taken for granted, particularly if we get significantly higher inflationary expectations — which appear to have begun to sprout in recent weeks.
If we get significantly higher interest rates for that reason, the Reserve Bank balance sheet impact from losses on securities assets would arrive if the losses become “realized” – a realistic prospect if the Federal Reserve reverses course and starts selling off securities as a means of conducting monetary policy amidst higher inflationary expectations.
Governments “don’t have to pay off their debt like a household does,” said Louise Sheiner, policy director for the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution. “They can just keep rolling it over. They’re never going to go out of business and have to pay all at once.”
State and local liabilities can also be likened to the federal government’s deficit and debt, Sheiner said in an interview with MarketWatch. Most economists think that as long as those numbers stay constant as a share of the economy, it’s not problematic.
Illinois? borrowing through the Federal Reserve?s Municipal Liquidity Facility provided a lifeline for critical services during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the state should be allowed to use its incoming federal coronavirus relief money to pay it off, Comptroller Susana Mendoza tells the federal government.
The state?s $3.8 billion of short-term borrowing, including $3.2 billion through the Federal Reserve?s Municipal Liquidity Facility ?was essential for the continued performance of government services during the most fiscally challenging times for the state?s cash flow during the pandemic, all directly related to the COVID-19 crisis,? Mendoza wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
?We want to promptly repay federal taxpayers for the crucial help they provided us during the pandemic,? wrote Mendoza, the elected constitutional officer who manages state debt, pension, and bill payments. The state?s updated American Relief Plan share is $8.1 billion.
Mendoza fired off the letter Wednesday, two days after the release of a 151-page guidance on how states, local governments, and tribes can spend their shares of the $350 billion Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund that?s built into the American Rescue Plan.
The guidance imposes a sweeping ban on using funds to cover principal and interest repayment, even when the borrowing was directly related to the COVID-19 crisis.