Tag Archives: Inflation

How interest rates are determined

From our favorite economist – Brian Wesbury:

An entire generation of investors has been misled about interest rates: where they come from, what they mean, how they’re determined.

Lots of this confusion has to do with the role of central banks. Many think central banks, like the Fed, control all interest rates. This isn’t true. They can only control short-term rates. It’s true these can have an impact on other rates, but it doesn’t mean they control the entire yield curve.

Ultimately, an interest rate is simply the cost of transferring consumption over time. If someone wants to save (spend less than they earn today) in order to consume more in the future, they must find someone else who wants to spend more today than they earn, and then repay in the future.

Savers (lenders) want to be compensated by maintaining – or improving – their future purchasing power, which means they need payment for three things: inflation, credit risk, and taxes.

Lenders deserve compensation for inflation. Credit risk – the chance a loan will not be repaid – is also part of any interest rate. And, of course, those who earn interest owe taxes on that income. After taxes, investors deserve a positive return. In other words, interest rates that naturally occur in a competitive marketplace should include these three factors.

So, why haven’t they? In July 2012, the 10-year Treasury yield averaged just 1.53%. But since then, the consumer price index alone is up 1.5% per year. An investor who paid a tax rate of 25% would owe roughly 0.375% of the 1.53% yield in taxes. In other words, after inflation and taxes (and without even thinking about credit risk, which on a Treasury is essentially nil), someone who bought a 10-year bond in July 2012 has lost 0.35% of purchasing power each year, in addition to capital losses as bond prices have declined.

Something is off. The bond market has not been compensating investors for saving, it has been punishing them.

Some blame Quantitative Easing. The theory is that when the Fed buys bonds, yields fall. It’s simply supply and demand. But this is a mistake. Bonds aren’t like commodities, where if someone buys up all the steel, the price will move higher. A bond is a bond, no matter how many exist. Just because Apple has more bonds outstanding than a small cap company doesn’t mean Apple pays a higher interest rate.

If the Fed bought every 10-year Treasury in existence except for a single $10,000 Note, why would its yield be less than the current yield on the 10-year note (putting aside artificial government rules that goad banks into buying Treasury securities)? It’s the same issuer, same inflation rate, same tax rate, same credit risk, and the same maturity and coupon. It should have the same yield. It didn’t become a collector’s item; it still faces competition from a wide array of other investments. It’s still the same bond.

The real reason interest rates have remained so low is because many think the Fed will keep holding short-term rates down below fundamental levels well into the future. If the Fed promises to hold the overnight rate at zero for 2-years then the 2-year Treasury will also be close to zero. And since the 10-year note is made up of five continuous 2-year notes, then Fed policy can influence (but not control) longer-term yields as well. The Fed’s zero percent interest rate policy artificially held down longer-term Treasury yields, not Quantitative Easing. That’s why longer-term yields have risen as the Fed has hiked rates.

And they will continue to rise. Why? Because the Fed has held short-term rates too low for too long. Interest rates are below inflation and well below nominal GDP growth. The Fed has gotten away with this for quite some time because they over-regulated banks, making it hard to lend and grow. Those days are ending and low rates now are becoming dangerous.

With inflation and growth rising, and regulation on the decline, interest rates must go higher. It’s true the Fed is unwinding QE, but that’s not why rates are going up. They’re going up because the economy is telling savers that they should demand higher rates.

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Inflation Ready to Rise

Brian Wesbury is one of our favorite economists and market commentators.  One of the key indicators the Federal Reserve is watching is the rate of inflation.  The Fed wants the “core” inflation rate to be 2%.  We are not in favor of any inflation at all, but we are not the Federal Reserve so it’s worth looking at the numbers they are looking at.

Wesbury:

The consumer price index is up only 1.1% in the past year. The Fed’s preferred measure of inflation – for personal consumption expenditures, or PCE – is up 1.0%. The US doesn’t face deflation, but the overall inflation statistics are, and have remained, low.

But the money supply is accelerating, the jobs market looks very tight, and underneath the calm exterior, there are some green shoots of inflationary pressure.

The “core” measures of inflation, which exclude volatile food and energy prices, are not nearly as contained as overall measures. And before you say everyone has to eat and drive, realize that both food an energy prices are volatile and global in nature. They don’t always reveal true underlying price pressures.

The ‘core” CPI is up 2.3% in the past year, while the “core” PCE index is up 1.7%. In other words, a drop in food and energy prices has been masking underlying inflation that is already at or near the Fed’s 2% target. Energy prices have stabilized and food prices will rise again. As a result, soon, overall inflation measures are going to be running higher than the Fed’s target.

Housing costs are up 3.4% in the past year and medical care costs are up 3.4%.

Although some (usually Keynesian) analysts are waiting for much higher growth in wages before they fear rising inflation, the fact is that wage growth is already accelerating. Average hourly earnings are up 2.6% in the past year versus a 2.0% gain only two years ago. Moreover, as a paper earlier this year from the San Francisco Fed pointed out, this acceleration is happening in spite of the retirement of relatively high-wage Baby Boomers and the re-entry into the labor force of workers with below-average skills.

But we don’t think wages cause inflation – money does. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. The Fed has held short-term interest rates at artificially low levels for the past several years while it’s expanded its balance sheet to unprecedented levels. Monetary policy has been loose.

… M2 has expanded at an 8.6% annualized rate. More money brings more inflation.

None of this means hyperinflation is finally on its way. In the past, inflation has taken time to build, leaving room for the Fed to respond by shrinking its balance sheet and getting back to a more normal monetary policy.

In the meantime, this will be the last year in a long while, where we see inflation below the Fed’s 2% target. Look for both higher inflation and interest rates in the years ahead.

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