The Interest Rate Tangle Reveals a Chronic Flaw

Job and wage growth have slowed, and people keep leaving the labor force even as the country has clawed its way out of the deep hole of 2008. The unemployment rate sits at 5.1%, recovering from an abysmal 10% in September 2009. More than half of the unemployment recovery is a mirage since between 2008 and 2015, 3.5% of the labor force ceased working or looking for work. That exodus continues – the labor force was smaller last month than it was in January 2015. Between 2009 and 2015 wages grew a mere 2% annually and the consumer price index grew 1.4% annually. As a result, every year, consumers face an insulting real wage hike of six-tenths of a percent.

European Union economies are growing slow enough to need a stimulus from their central bank. In the EU, borrowing interest rates are currently set at 0.05% and deposit interest rates earn minus 0.2%.  In addition, there is “quantitative easing” where the EU central bank buys $67 billion in government bonds each month, in effect injecting $800 billion yearly into the European economy. Europe’s stimuli are not enough to restore EU’s demand for our exports.

After years of growth running near 10%, the Chinese juggernaut slowed to a jog. Official reports put its growth at 7%, but 3% is more likely. To stimulate its economy, the Peoples Bank of China again cut interest rates by a quarter point. Advanced economies, like the US, are unable to export as much to the slow moving China, and China is cutting its imports from developing nations.

The slump across foreign economies undercuts the value of their currencies and that, in turn, inflates the value of the US dollar, doing damage to the best of our competitive export companies (such as Caterpillar) and the skilled workers they employ. Our more expensive dollar and a glut in crude oil makes our oil imports cheaper and the combination undermines the viability of the US oil boom, halting most US exploration. In the short run, there is little we can do to correct the influence of offshore slowdowns.

The US economy is poised on the edge of a downward slope in growth and consumers face dismal prospects for wages. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is indecisive about an increase in interest rates that could restore some of its sway over growth and inflation. A hike in rates would depress job and wage growth but it would help retirees and others reliant on income from interest payments.

The biggest impact from Fed rate hikes may be on the US Treasury and taxpayers. The CBO predicts that interest rates applicable to the Federal debt will rise from an average of 1.8% to 3.9% in the decade ending 2024. The Treasury’s interest payments on the $19 trillion in public debt will rise from $231 billion in 2014 to $799 billion in 2024, consuming 13% of federal spending. That will crowd out our ability to repay the national debt or to create new programs that the country may desperately need.

Keeping rates low would be beneficial to consumers, businesses and the US Treasury directly through reduced costs. Higher interest rates would benefit the Fed’s effectiveness and those depending on fixed income instruments. While the right choice is unclear, a spot between the polar extremes could restore some of the Fed’s clout with a small, one-time rate increase.

To make the best decision would require collaboration from both fiscal and monetary policy makers. Regretfully, elected federal officials are AWOL from their job of managing the fiscal side of national economic policy. That leaves the Fed to do what it can through monetary policy alone, and monetary policy is not enough.

Wise economic policy no longer flows from the Congress and White House. Instead, while sitting atop their own multi-million dollar portfolios, half of the politicians fan the flames of income envy and wealth resentment; the other half quibbles over social policy abstractions and internecine issues.

Our elected officials lack realistic plans to correct income inequality or to invigorate the economy. For about half, their re-election strategy hinges on reminding voters that they suffer from economic victimhood and shaming anyone with the gall to earn enough to care for their own family. Ironically, finding a cure for income inequality would be counterproductive for these politicians as it would undermine their viability at the ballot box.

Only consumers can prevent political narcissism. Since elected officials refuse to lead constructively, consumers must seize control and fix that flaw by electing representatives who will do the work that we assign them. Party membership is not important; accountability, character, and wisdom are.