Vancouver, British Columbia is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has a temperate climate, mountains in the background, and right now there is plenty of sunshine.
To make it even better, the Canadian dollar is trading at $0.75, which makes travel to Vancouver a bargain.
We just spent three days in the storied town at the 2015 Irrational Economic Summit. The event was as great as it sounds. But no matter how much we enjoyed the location, speakers, and attendees, there was a cloud hanging over the meeting.
Everyone’s grumbling about this week’s decision on raising rates. This is odd because no one knows what the decision will be. It would make sense that at least some group would be thrilled to see the Fed either raise rates or stand pat, but I can’t find anyone with that point of view.
This doesn’t mean people don’t have opinions on what the Fed should do. Everyone on television, in print, or talking at a conference can tell you why the Fed should or should not raise rates. But no one’s happy about it. And that’s the rub.
People who want the Fed to hold off point to weakness around the world and the knock-on effects of higher rates.
The Chinese economy is slowing down. If rates move higher, then the U.S. dollar will strengthen, pushing up the yuan because it is pegged to the U.S. dollar. The Chinese just devalued their currency, then spent over $100 billion trying to keep it within a narrow trading band. Anything that upsets this balancing act will require more Chinese intervention.
At the same time, a stronger dollar will entice investors to pull more capital out of emerging markets as they seek higher gains in the buck. This would make these fragile, natural-resource providers vulnerable to currency runs reminiscent of the late 1990s.
Here at home, a stronger dollar will make our exports more expensive to foreign buyers. This will drive down the earnings of multinational companies at the same time that they’re dealing with weak economies abroad.
If rates remain low, then investors will keep subsidizing. As if financial institutions weren’t already favored in all of this. Currently, banks pay almost nothing for deposits while earning 3% to 4% on loans.
When the Fed pushed rates down, it hoped that borrowers would take on more loans and spend the cash, thereby re-energizing the economy. Instead, banks got a pass on paying interest while large institutions used the low-rate environment to leverage up their investing or, for public companies, to buy back their own stock.
However well-meaning the Fed’s plan, the outcome of exceptionally low rates for seven years has been corporate welfare and a bunch of profit-creation for banks and other big parties, at the expense of savers.
You’ll notice in all this, no one’s talking about the positive, because there isn’t much. Those who want to keep the status quo aren’t screaming about wonderful economic growth in the low-rate environment. They don’t make the case that things are great the way they are.
Instead, they point to the harm that could come from a change.
Those looking for higher rates aren’t asking the Fed to curb an economy at risk of growing out of control. They don’t pound the table about the need to rein in inflation, because there isn’t any (as we’ve said many times, deflation is a bigger risk). Their point revolves around the Fed’s current policy favoring one group over another.
So we have fear of a greater economic slowdown, a worry over how rising rates will affect the rest of the world, frustration with current policy as a corporate giveaway, and the distinct belief that the Fed is taking advantage of small savers. The Fed won’t win no matter what it does!
In my view, it’s about time. Finally people are realizing the negative effects of Fed intervention when it goes beyond the scope of lender of last resort.
When the Fed bought mortgage-backed securities in 2009 it was breaking open a market that had frozen shut. Everything after that has been an attempt to manage the economy, and it hasn’t worked.
What’s worse, their policies have created unintended consequences like the stock and bond booms, while driving conservative investors into riskier assets. The sooner the Fed returns short-term rates to a normal range – and excuses themselves from manipulating the long end of the yield curve – the better off we’ll all be.
Then we can get back to the task of repairing our economy and finding a way forward.
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