Tag: Federal Reserve

Raising Interest Rates to Help the Housing Market

Last week I offered a few proposals to help move along the housing market. Given the need for brevity, the rationales for each were short. As almost all of them were counter to the conventional wisdom, they do merit a little more explaining, in particular the suggestion to raise interest rates.

Before I could offer a further discussion of the fact that the mortgage market is driven by both demand and supply, Daniel Indiviglio at the Atlantic was quick enough to provide much of that detail. Rather than repeat his analysis here, which I agree with, let’s focus on a few other points.

David argues that “at rates like 4 percent, those loans had better be pristine if the bank wants to ensure that its default risk is covered by the small amount of interest it receives.” Let’s dig a little deeper. What lenders care about are real rates. With inflation running approximately 2 percent, the real return on a prime mortgage today, before credit cost, is around 2 percent. But today about 3.5 percent of prime loans are in foreclosure. Assuming a 50 percent recovery rate, 1.75 percent is needed to cover credit losses. Even in good times, prime loans foreclosure at about a 0.6 percent rate. With subprime foreclosures running about 14 percent, you’d need to charge at least 9 percent to break-even in real terms. At today’s rates, lenders are barely breaking even on prime loans, they’d bleed money if they charge similar rates to subprime borrowers.

But then why don’t lenders just charge higher rates for the higher risk borrowers? After all that’s what they did during the bubble years.  Well a lot has changed since then. For instance, in 2008 the Federal Reserve, under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA), lowered the threshold for what is considered a “higher-cost” mortgage, from treasury +8 percent, which excluded much of the market, to prime mortgage +1.5 percent, which under current rates makes anything over 5.5 percent a “high cost” mortgage. When Congress passed HOEPA in 1994, it shut down that segment of the market, due to what is tremendous litigation risk. Now the Fed’s extension of HOEPA has done the same for much of the mortgage market. According to the Fed, 22 percent of the market was “higher-cost” in 2005. After the new regulation, that share had fallen to 2.4 percent in 2010. Yes the housing bubble and credit crisis would have shrunk that market, but by almost 90 percent? And yes, many of those loans we didn’t want to come back, but many we did.

The point here is that the Fed actually does impose, via legal risk, a de facto ceiling on mortgage rates. If we want to bring back housing/mortgage demand among higher risk borrowers, which were a significant source of demand, then the Fed would be wise to suspend its current HOEPA rules. If we don’t want to bring that demand back, then fine, just stop complaining about a weak housing market. As an aside, I was of the view in 2008 and still today that the Fed lacked legal authority for its 2008 HOEPA rule, but then the Fed has rarely let a lack of legal authority get in its way.

The Federal Reserve, the ‘Twist,’ Inflation, QE3, and Pushing on a String

In a move that some are calling QE3, the Federal Reserve announced yesterday that it will engage in a policy called “the twist” – selling short-term bonds and buying long-term bonds in hopes of artificially reducing long-term interest rates. If successful, this policy (we are told) will incentivize more borrowing and stimulate growth.

I’ve freely admitted before that it is difficult to identify the right monetary policy, but it certainly seems like this policy is – at best – an ineffective gesture. This is why the Fed’s various efforts to goose the economy with easy money have been described as “pushing on a string.”

Here are two related questions that need to be answered.

1. Is the economy’s performance being undermined by high long-term rates?

Considering that interest rates are at very low levels already, it seems rather odd to claim that the economy will suddenly rebound if they get pushed down a bit further. Japan has had very low interest rates (both short-run and long-run) for a couple of decades, yet the economy has remained stagnant.

Perhaps the problem is bad policy in other areas. After all, who wants to borrow money, expand business, create jobs, and boost output if Washington is pursuing a toxic combination of excessive spending and regulation, augmented by the threat of higher taxes.

2. Is the economy hampered by lack of credit?

Low interest rates, some argue, may not help the economy if banks don’t have any money to lend. Yet I’ve already pointed out that banks have more than $1 trillion of excess reserves deposited at the Fed.

Perhaps the problem is that banks don’t want to lend money because they don’t see profitable opportunities. After all, it’s better to sit on money than to lend it to people who won’t pay it back because of an economy weakened by too much government.

The Wall Street Journal makes all the relevant points in its editorial.

The Fed announced that through June 2012 it will buy $400 billion in Treasury bonds at the long end of the market—with six- to 30-year maturities—and sell an equal amount of securities of three years’ duration or less. The point, said the FOMC statement, is to put further “downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and help make broader financial conditions more accommodative.” It’s hard to see how this will make much difference to economic growth. Long rates are already at historic lows, and even a move of 10 or 20 basis points isn’t likely to affect many investment decisions at the margin. The Fed isn’t acting in a vacuum, and any move in bond prices could well be swamped by other economic news. Europe’s woes are accelerating, and every CEO in America these days is worried more about what the National Labor Relations Board is doing to Boeing than he is about the 30-year bond rate. The Fed will also reinvest the principal payments it receives on its asset holdings into mortgage-backed securities, rather than in U.S. Treasurys. The goal here is to further reduce mortgage costs and thus help the housing market. But home borrowing costs are also at historic lows, and the housing market suffers far more from the foreclosure overhang and uncertainty encouraged by government policy than it does from the price of money. The Fed’s announcement thus had the feel of an attempt to show it is doing something to help the economy, even if it can’t do much. …the economy’s problems aren’t rooted in the supply and price of money. They result from the damage done to business confidence and investment by fiscal and regulatory policy, and that’s where the solutions must come. Investors on Wall Street and politicians in Washington want to believe that the Fed can make up for years of policy mistakes. The sooner they realize it can’t, the sooner they’ll have no choice but to correct the mistakes.

Let’s also take this issue to the next level. Some people are explicitly arguing in favor of more “quantitative easing” because they want some inflation. They argue that “moderate” inflation will help the economy by indirectly wiping out some existing debt.

This is a very dangerous gambit. Letting the inflation genie out of the bottle could trigger 1970s-style stagflation. Paul Volcker fires a warning shot against this risky approach in a New York Times column. Here are the key passages.

…we are beginning to hear murmurings about the possible invigorating effects of “just a little inflation.” Perhaps 4 or 5 percent a year would be just the thing to deal with the overhang of debt and encourage the “animal spirits” of business, or so the argument goes. The siren song is both alluring and predictable. …After all, if 1 or 2 percent inflation is O.K. and has not raised inflationary expectations — as the Fed and most central banks believe — why not 3 or 4 or even more? …all of our economic history says it won’t work that way. I thought we learned that lesson in the 1970s. That’s when the word stagflation was invented to describe a truly ugly combination of rising inflation and stunted growth. …What we know, or should know, from the past is that once inflation becomes anticipated and ingrained — as it eventually would — then the stimulating effects are lost. Once an independent central bank does not simply tolerate a low level of inflation as consistent with “stability,” but invokes inflation as a policy, it becomes very difficult to eliminate. …At a time when foreign countries own trillions of our dollars, when we are dependent on borrowing still more abroad, and when the whole world counts on the dollar’s maintaining its purchasing power, taking on the risks of deliberately promoting inflation would be simply irresponsible.

Last but not least, here is my video on the origin of central banking, which starts with an explanation of how currency evolved in the private sector, then describes how governments then seized that role by creating monopoly central banks, and closes with a list of options to promote good monetary policy.

And I can’t resist including a link to the famous “Ben Bernank” QE2 video that was a viral smash.

Easy Money from the Federal Reserve Is Not the Solution for America’s Economic Problems

Allen Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, writes today in the Wall Street Journal about the Fed’s worrisome announcement that it will continue the easy-money policy of artificially low interest rates.

Professor Meltzer’s key point (at least to me) is that the economy is weak because of too much government intervention and too much federal spending, and you don’t solve those problems with a loose-money policy – especially since banks already are sitting on $1.6 trillion of excess reserves. (Why lend money when the economy is weak and you may not get repaid?)

Meltzer then outlines some of the reforms that would boost growth, all of which are desirable, albeit a bit tame for my tastes:

[T]he United States does not have the kind of problems that printing more money will cure. Banks currently hold more than $1.6 trillion of idle reserves at the Fed. Banks can use those idle reserves to create enormous amounts of money. Interest rates on federal funds remain near zero. Longer-term interest rates on Treasurys are at record lows. What reason can there be for adding more excess reserves? The main effect would be a further devaluation of the dollar against competing currencies and gold, followed by a rise in the price of oil and other imports. …Money growth (M2) reached 10% for the past six months, presaging more inflation ahead.

…What we need most is confidence in our future. That calls for:

  • Reducing corporate tax rates permanently to encourage investment (paid for by closing loopholes).
  • Agreeing on long-term reductions in entitlement spending.
  • A five-year moratorium on new regulations affecting energy, environment, health and finance.
  • An explicit inflation target between zero and 2% to force the Fed to pay more attention to the medium term and to increase public confidence that we will not experience runaway inflation.

The president is wrong to pose the issue as more taxes for millionaires to pay for more redistribution now. That path leads to future crises because higher taxes support the low productivity growth of the welfare state, delay the transition to export-led growth, and do not reduce future budget liabilities enough.

Meltzer’s final point about the futility of class-warfare taxes is very important. He doesn’t use the term, but he’s making a Laffer Curve argument. Simply stated, if punitive tax rates cause investors, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to earn/declare less taxable income, then the government won’t collect as much money as predicted by the Joint Committee on Taxation’s simplistic models.

Of course, Obama said in 2008 than he wanted high tax rates for reasons of “fairness,” even if such policies didn’t lead to more tax revenue. That destructive mentality probably helps explain why not only banks, but also other companies, are sitting on cash and afraid to make significant investments.

But if you really want to understand how Obama’s policies are causing “regime uncertainty,” this cartoon is spot on.

Ricardo Paging Alan Blinder

I almost hesitate to suggest that anyone actually read Alan Blinder’s defense of Keynesian economics in today’s Wall Street Journal, except that the piece lays out clearly in my mind why Blinder is so wrong.  The only part you really need to read is:

In sum, you may view any particular public-spending program as wasteful, inefficient, leading to “big government” or objectionable on some other grounds. But if it’s not financed with higher taxes, and if it doesn’t drive up interest rates, it’s hard to see how it can destroy jobs.

So in Blinder’s world, deficits are explicitly not future taxes, despite what I believe is a fairly strong consensus among economists that some form of Ricardian equivalence holds (see John Seater’s literature review and conclusion, “despite its nearly certain invalidity as a literal description of the role of public debt in the economy, Ricardian equivalence holds as a close approximation.”).  Perhaps Blinder is blind to the fact that deficits are so much a part of the public debate today because households absolutely see those deficits as future taxes.

I also think Blinder misses that fact that crowding out can occur without raising interest rates.  As Cato scholar Steve Hanke points out, the Fed’s current policies have basically killed the interbank lending market, which has encouraged banks to load up on Treasuries and Agencies, rather than lend to the productive elements of the economy.  While I sadly don’t expect most mainstream macroeconomists to focus on the link between the banking sector and the macroeconomy, Blinder has no excuse; he served on the Fed board.

As I have argued elsewhere, banks are indeed lending, but to the government, not the private sector.  The simplistic notion that crowding out can only occur via higher interest rates, as if price is ever the only margin along which a decision is made, has done serious harm to macroeconomics.  But then if macroeconomists actually understood the mechanics of financial markets, then we might not be in this mess in the first place.

Is Housing Holding Back Inflation?

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the consumer price index (CPI) numbers for April, which generally gives us the best picture of inflation.  The headline number is that between April 2010 and April 2011, consumer prices increased 3.2 percent, as measured by the CPI.  Obviously this is well above 2 percent, the number Ben Bernanke defines as “price stability.”  Setting aside the reasonableness of that definition, there is definitely some mild inflation in the economy.

Also of interest in the April numbers is that if you subtract housing, which makes up over 40% of the weight of the CPI, then prices increased 4.2 percent — twice Bernanke’s measure of stability.  What has always been problematic of the housing component is that its largest piece is an estimate of what owners would pay themselves if they rented their own residence.  This estimate makes up about a fourth of the CPI.  As the chart below demonstrates, for much of 2010, the direction in this number was actually negative, which held down CPI over the last year.  The current annualized figure for owner’s rent is 0.9 from April 2010 to April 2011.  Oddly enough, this is below the actual increase in rents, which was 1.3.  For most homeowners, the real cost of housing — their mortgage payment — has likely been flat, not decreasing.  So whatever benefit there has been to declining housing costs, most consumers are unlikely to feel any benefit from those declines, if they are actually real.

While the primary driver of CPI has been energy costs, food prices have also garnered considerable attention.  Excluding food from the CPI does not change the headline number, although this is due to the fact that the cost of eating out has been rising considerably slower than the cost of eating at home.  So as along as you’ve been eating out every night, you’ve apparently been fine.  This touches upon what is one of the less recognized features of current inflation trends:  the regressive nature of these prices increases.  If you rent, then you’ve seen costs increase more than if you own.  If you mostly eat at home, then you’ve seen prices increase more than if you dine out a lot.  If you have a lot of leisure time, the you’ve gained by the decrease in reaction prices.  While I don’t think one’s position on inflation should be driven purely by distributional concerns, the fact that working middle-income households have been hit harder by recent inflation trends than higher-income households should cut against the claims that inflation is somehow good for the poor or working class.

Can We Rely on Inflation Expectations?

The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that in his recent press conference Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke used the words “inflation expectations” (or some variation) 21 times. His argument is that we need not worry about inflation because we will see it coming, and then the Fed will do something about it. Such an argument relies heavily on the ability of inflation expectations to predict inflation. Which of course raises the question, just how predictive are inflation expectations?

The graph below compares inflation, as measured by CPI, and inflation expectations, as measured by the University of Michigan consumer survey, the longest times series we have on inflation expectations.

Clearly the two move together. For instance, the correlation between current inflation and expectations is almost 1 (its 0.93), while the correlation between inflation and actual inflation a year later is slightly less at 0.81. The relationship declines as we move further into the future. So yes, consumer expectations appear a reasonable predictor of the direction of inflation. However, they don’t appear to be a great predictor of the magnitude or the frequency of changes. For instance, the standard deviation of actual inflation is about twice that of expected inflation. As one can easily see from the chart, expectations are quite sticky and rarely pick up the extremes. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, expectations did move up, but then never reached the heights actually experienced, nor did consumers ever actually expect deflation during the recent financial crisis (if we are going to base policy on expectations, we should at least be consistent about it).

For about the last decade we also have market based measures of inflation, based upon inflation-indexed bonds. The TIPS measure tends to be less correlated with actual inflation, but does a better job of capturing the extremes. Although interesting enough, TIPS was already predicting that deflation would be short-lived before we even experienced any deflation.

The point is that while expectations are useful for qualitatively purposes, they do not have a strong record of recording the extremes. Given that most of us expect some positive level of inflation, the real debate is over how much. In this regard, either survey or market-based expectations are likely to be both a lagging indicator and an under-estimate of actual inflation.

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