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Yeah…But

Yeah… Barry Bonds, a Major League Baseball (MLB) player, put up some amazing stats in his career. What sets him apart from other players is that he got better in the later years of his career, a time when most players see their production rapidly decline.

Before the age of 30, Bonds hit a home run every 5.9% of the time he was at bat. After his 30th birthday, that rate almost doubled to over 10%. From age 36 to 39, he hit an astounding .351, well above his lifetime .298 batting average. Of all Major League baseball players over the age of 35, Bonds leads in home runs, slugging percentage, runs created, extra-base hits, and home runs per at bat. We would be remiss if we neglected to mention that Barry Bonds hit a record 762 homeruns in his MLB career and he also holds the MLB record for most home runs in a season with 73.

But… as we found out after those records were broken, Bond’s extraordinary statistics were not because of practice, a new batting stance, maturity, or other organic factors. It was his use of steroids. The same steroids that allowed Bonds to get stronger, heal quicker, and produce Hall of Fame statistics will also take a toll on his health in the years ahead.  

Turn on CNBC or Bloomberg News, and you will inevitably hear the hosts and interviewees rave on and on about the booming markets, low unemployment, and the record economic expansion. To that, we say Yeah… As in the Barry Bonds story, there is also a “But…” that tells the whole story.

As we will discuss, the economy is not all roses when one considers the massive amount of monetary steroids stimulating growth. Further, as Bonds too will likely find out at some point in his future, there will be consequences for these performance-enhancing policies.

Wicksell’s Wisdom

Before a discussion of the abnormal fiscal and monetary policies responsible for surging financial asset prices and the record-long economic expansion, it is important to impart the wisdom of Knut Wicksell and a few paragraphs from a prior article we published entitled Wicksell’s Elegant Model.

“According to Wicksell, when the market rate (of interest) is below the natural rate, there is an incentive to borrow and reinvest in an economy at the higher natural rate. This normally leads to an economic boom until demand drives up the market rate and eventually chokes off demand. When the market rate exceeds the natural rate, borrowing slows along with economic activity eventually leading to a recession, and the market rate again falls back below the natural rate. Wicksell viewed the divergences between the natural rate and the market rate as the mechanism by which the economic cycle is determined. If a divergence between the natural rate and the market rate is abnormally sustained, it causes a severe misallocation of capital.

Per Wicksell, optimal policy should aim at keeping the natural rate and the market rate as closely aligned as possible to prevent misallocation. But when short-term market rates are below the natural rate, intelligent investors respond appropriately. They borrow heavily at the low rate and buy existing assets with somewhat predictable returns and shorter time horizons. Financial assets skyrocket in value while long-term, cash-flow driven investments with riskier prospects languish. The bottom line: existing assets rise in value but few new assets are added to the capital stock, which is decidedly bad for productivity and the structural growth of the economy.

Essentially, Wicksell warns that when interest rates are lower than they should be, speculation in financial assets is spurred and investment into the real economy suffers. The result is a boom in financial asset prices at the expense of future economic activity. Sound familiar? 

But… Monetary Policy

The Fed’s primary tool to manage economic growth and inflation is the Fed Funds rate. Fed Funds is the rate of interest that banks charge each other to borrow on an overnight basis. As the graph below shows, the Fed Funds rate has been pinned at least 2% below the rate of economic growth since the financial crisis. Such a low relative rate spanning such a long period is simply unprecedented, and in the words of Wicksell not “optimal policy.” 

Until the financial crisis, managing the Fed Funds rate was the sole tool for setting monetary policy. As such, it was easy to assess how much, if any, stimulus the Fed was providing at any point in time. The advent of Quantitative Easing (QE) made this task less transparent at the same time the Fed was telling us they wanted to be more transparent.  

Between 2008 and 2014, through three installations of QE, the Fed bought nearly $3.2 trillion of government, mortgage-backed, and agency securities in exchange for excess banking reserves. These excess reserves allowed banks to extend more loans than would be otherwise possible. In doing so, not only was economic activity generated, but the money supply rose which had a positive effect on the economy and financial markets.

Trying to quantifying the amount of stimulus offered by QE is not easy. However, in 2011, Fed Chairman Bernanke provided a simple rule in Congressional testimony to allow us to transform a dollar amount of QE into an interest rate equivalent. Bernanke suggested that every additional $6.6 to $10 billion of excess reserves, the byproduct of QE, has the effect of lowering interest rates by 0.01%. Therefore, every trillion dollars’ worth of new excess reserves is equivalent to lowering interest rates by 1.00% to 1.50% in Bernanke’s opinion. In the ensuing discussion, we use Bernanke’s more conservative estimate of $10 billion to produce a .01% decline in interest rates.

The graph below aggregates the two forms of monetary stimulus (Fed Funds and QE) to gauge how much effective interest rates are below the rate of economic growth. The blue area uses the Fed Funds – GDP data from the first graph. The orange area representing QE is based on Bernanke’s formula. 

Since the financial crisis, the Fed has effectively kept interest rates 5.11% below the rate of economic growth on average. Looking back in time, one can see that the current policy prescription is vastly different from the prior three recessions and ensuing expansions. Following the three recessions before the financial crisis, the Fed kept interest rates lower than the GDP rate to help foster recovery. The stimulus was limited in duration and removed entirely during the expansion. Before comparing these periods to the current expansion, it is worth noting that the amount of stimulus increased during each expansion. This is a function of the growth of debt in the economy beyond the economy’s growth rate and the increasing reliance on debt to generate economic growth. 

The current expansion is being promoted by significantly more stimulus and at much more consistent levels. Effectively the Fed is keeping rates 5.11% below normal, which is about five times the stimulus applied to the average of the prior three recessions. 

Simply the Fed has gone from periodic use of stimulus to heal the economy following recessions to a constant intravenous drip of stimulus to support the economy.

Moar

Starting in late 2015, the Fed tried to wean the economy from the stimulus. Between December of 2015 and December of 2018, the Fed increased the Fed Funds rates by 2.50%. They stepped up those efforts in 2018 as they also reduced the size of their balance sheet (via Quantitative Tightening, “QT”) from $4.4 trillion to $3.7 trillion.

The Fed hoped the economic patient was finally healing from the crisis and they could remove the exorbitant amount of stimulus applied to the economy and the markets. What they discovered is their imprudent policies of the post-crisis era made the patient hopelessly addicted to monetary drugs.

Beginning in July 2019, the Fed cut the target for the Fed Funds rate three times by a cumulative 0.75%. A month after the first rate cut they abruptly halted QT and started increasing their balance sheet through a series of repo operations and QE. Since then, the Fed’s balance sheet has reversed much of the QT related decrease and is growing at a pace that rivals what we saw immediately following the crisis. It is now up almost a half a trillion dollars from the lows and only $200 billion from the high watermark. The Fed is scheduled to add $60 billion more per month to its balance sheet through April. Even more may be added if repo operations expand.

The economy was slowing, and markets were turbulent in late 2018. Despite the massive stimulus still in place, the removal of a relatively small amount of stimulus proved too volatility-inducing for the Fed and the markets to bear.

Summary

Wicksell warned that lower than normal rates lead to speculation in financial assets and less investment into the real economy. Is it any wonder that risk assets have zoomed higher over the last five years despite tepid economic growth and flat corporate earnings (NIPA data Bureau of Economic Analysis -BEA)? 

When someone tells you the economy is doing fine, remind them that Barry Bonds was a very good player but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

To provide further context on the extremity of monetary policy in America and around the world, we present an incredible graph courtesy of Bianco Research. The graph shows the Bank of England’s balance sheet as a percentage of GDP since 1700. If we focus on the past 100 years, notice the only period comparable to today was during World War II. England was in a life or death battle at the time. What is the rationalization today? Central banker inconvenience?

While most major countries cannot produce similar data going back that far, they have all experienced the same unprecedented surge in their central bank’s balance sheet.

Assuming today’s environment is normal without considering the but…. is a big mistake. And like Barry Bonds, who will never know when the consequences of his actions will bring regret, neither do the central bankers or the markets. 

The Coming Age of Real Assets

What do these four periods have in common?

  • 1861-1865
  • 1916-1920
  • 1941-1950
  • 2010-2018

On close inspection, the first three eras are periods of major U.S. military conflicts (The Civil War, World War I, and World War II), but you may be wondering why we included the recent, post financial crisis era. The reason is that these four instances are periods of excessive monetary stimulus. The chart below, recently published by JP Morgan Asset Management, illustrates average real yields in 5-year periods since 1830.

As shown, historical periods of negative real yields (market interest rates below the rate of inflation) developed out of the dire need to fund deficit-spending associated with the massive cost of those wars.

In stark contrast with those major events, that is not what is happening today. The current period is a remarkable anomaly as it stems not from war but from years of financial chicanery and monetary policy experimentation. This period is something altogether different and will certainly have consequences that many fail to anticipate.

We have been frequent critics of the Federal Reserve (Fed) and the other major central banks for all their various forms of so-called sound central banking policies. The manufactured stimulus resulting from interest rate manipulation and money printing aimed at forcing stock prices higher has wide ranging effects. Some are easily noticeable in the short term and other distortions and consequences will only be observable over longer periods of time. This article discusses one such distortion that presents an investment opportunity in the making.

As discussed in Wicksell’s Elegant Model, when the market rate of interest is held below the natural rate of interest (a proxy for economic growth) as has been the case since the financial crisis, capital tends to get misallocated on a vast scale. Companies and investors that can borrow at ultra-low cost are more incentivized to re-invest in existing assets. They do not need or want to take on the risk and time demands of deploying capital into new long-term projects. This is even truer today as executive compensation packages, laden with stock options, reward such behavior.

The result is a price boom in existing financial assets such as stocks and bonds. Because capital is largely directed to financial assets, commerce increasingly shuns investment in new property, plant and equipment and gravitates toward takeover bids for existing competitors, share buybacks and larger dividends.

Financial asset transactions, however, do not lead to an expansion of the capital stock. They are only a transfer in the ownership of assets which primarily results in a net increase of total debt. Economic growth during such environments has little organic sponsorship. Instead, the growth realized is largely, superficially fueled by debt and, as a result, temporary.

Money Message

Part of the reason financial engineering and speculation has taken precedence over real capital investment is that investors lack a sound basis for making long-term investment and project decisions. Exchange rates and interest rates are a reflection of money as a store of value and therefore a vital conduit of information. When policymakers tamper with either or both, they distort that flow of information, thus handicapping investors in their ability to properly assess the current and future value of goods and services. Under those circumstances, few business managers are willing to take on the risk of investing in new plant and equipment especially after adjusting for the probability of failure. The easiest solution to that problem is to borrow heavily at low interest rates and reinvest in assets offering an existing stream of income. This produces a reasonable return on investment with much better visibility.  

One of the more compelling charts we have seen in the last year is the long-term relationship between the S&P 500 and the Goldman Sachs Commodities Index (GSCI). No chart better illustrates the distortion of uses of capital as described above. The following chart highlights the divergence between financial assets, using the S&P 500 as a proxy, which have exploded in price and real assets such as those found in the commodities complex.

To offer a more detailed perspective, the next chart highlights the contrast in price returns between the S&P 500 and the Commodities Research Bureau (CRB) commodities index along with the ratio between the two gauges.

If the negative real interest rate regime of the post-crisis era has indeed obscured the pricing mechanism of money and reinforced the preference for financial assets, it should also be negatively reflected in real assets. Using the CRB index as a proxy as shown below, we notice that commodity prices are at levels seen over 20 years ago.

Despite negative real rates and rising marginal costs of production, two factors that have historically supported commodity prices, they continue to remain under pressure. Additionally, while China’s appetite for raw materials has diminished somewhat, plans for the massive One-Belt, One-Road (OBOR), the new silk road, continue to advance as do the commodity requirements for that project.

Opportunities in Commodities

If as we suspect, the low interest rate environment has been an important dynamic in financial asset price inflation, then normalizing interest rates may also bring gradual normalization of investor preferences.

Such an adjustment could be an impetus towards more investment in durable cash flow projects and less in speculative financial assets. Over time this would be disruptive to stock prices and beneficial for commodities.

From a value perspective, commodities are relatively cheap as an asset class and some specific components in particular have been depressed for quite some time. Since 2017, sugar is down -35%, coffee is down -45% and natural gas is down -28%.

Taking a longer view, since 2014 corn and soybeans are down -11% and -28% respectively while lean hogs are down -44% and sugar is down -22%. Last we checked, the global population is not shrinking and the likelihood that demand for these basic necessities will fall seems low.

Add to the equation the supply restraints of harvesting or mining resulting from environmental disruptions and this out of favor asset class could begin to surprise to the upside. In a world where everyone seems inclined to pay top dollar for the latest fad, these staples of global society certainly warrant close monitoring.

Summary

Low interest rates have disrupted the normal functioning transmission mechanism of the price of money and prudent decision-making has been obscured as a result of these extensive price controls. This has led investors, corporate managers and entrepreneurs to take evasive actions, avoid risks, and lever up cheap money to go for the sure thing. The irony is that although this produces favorable short-term results, it impairs the intermediate and long-run growth potential of the economy.

Given the slow and methodical process promised by the Fed, any normalization may take time. Then again, if concerns around inflation begin to emerge, the normalization of interest rates may be forced to accelerate. Commodities have been a big underperformer since 2011 as investors shunned real assets over financially engineered options. Although the turn may not be here quite yet, the commodity sector stands to eventually benefit and is one place with a lot of options to look for value.

Those who see that the last 10-years of experimental stimulus has been on par with, or arguably exceeded, policies historically reserved for major wars gain a unique and valuable perspective of the current monetary mirage. The demise of those policies, as they are bound to unravel, will reveal a multitude of investment opportunities left behind in the ill-advised euphoria of anti-capitalism.

The Weaponization of the Dollar

The Uncivil Civil War discussed the sanguine approach many investors take towards equity risk despite clear signs of domestic political turbulence. The article put the upcoming elections and the growing political divisions amongst the populace into context with market risks.

While we read plenty of politically related articles and many more investment related articles, we have found precious few that bridge the gap and gauge the effect politics has on markets. The intersection of markets and politics is important and should be followed closely, especially with a mid-term election months away. As so eloquently described by the late Charles Krauthammer, “You can have the most advanced and efflorescent cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.

In this article, we readdress politics and markets from an international perspective. In particular, we focus on suspicions we have regarding Donald Trump’s negotiation tactics and goals for the U.S. relationship with Turkey.

Emerging Markets and the Dollar

China, Turkey, and Iran are all classified as emerging markets. While the classification is broad and includes a diverse group of countries, these countries have many things in common. One is that their currencies, for the most part, are not liquid or highly valued. Thus, they heavily rely on the world’s reserve currency, the U.S. dollar, to conduct international trade.

As an example, when Pakistan buys oil from Qatar, they transact in U.S. dollars, not rupees or riyals. To facilitate trade efficiently, these countries must hold excess dollars in reserve. In almost all cases, emerging market nations rely on U.S. dollar-denominated debt for their transactional needs.

Dollar-denominated debt is currently the cause of much economic pain for Turkey. To understand why, we present a simplified example. Suppose on January 1, 2018, a Turkish corporation borrowed $100 million U.S. dollars with an agreement to pay it back with interest of 5% on August 15th, 2018. The company, as is typical, converts the loaned dollars to Turkish Lira.  On August 15, 2018, the company will convert the Lira back to dollars in order to pay the principal and interest due on the loan.

The following graph charts the Turkish Lira versus the Dollar over the life of the loan.

On January 1, 2018, one U.S. Dollar was worth 3.79 Lira. Over the next eight months, the U.S dollar appreciated significantly versus the Lira such that one U.S. dollar was worth approximately 5.81 Lira. As such, the company will now need 5.81 Lira to purchase each dollar it needs to repay the loan. Due to the strengthening of the U.S. dollar versus the Lira over the time period of the outstanding loan, the company would need 584,282,000 Lira to pay back what was originally a 378,750,000 Lira loan. In other words, the true all-in cost of borrowing was not 5% but 54%.

Turkey’s public and private sector dollar denominated loans outstanding are currently estimated to be around $500 billion. Turkish borrowers must grapple with repaying outstanding dollar-denominated loans by using more Lira to acquire the necessary dollars, and with the fact that interest rates, as set by Turkey’s central bank, have risen from 8% to 17.75%. To make matters even worse, the annualized rate of inflation is estimated to be over 100% in Turkey. Needless to say, dollar appreciation versus the Lira is bringing the Turkish economy to its knees.

Enter Donald Trump

Donald Trump, who authored a book entitled “The Art of the Deal,” takes great pride in his negotiating skills. Readers of this book know he highly values leverage in negotiations. As the President of the United States, Trump clearly has enormous leverage to change the global landscape. In the case of trade negotiations, we have seen repeated threats of tariffs against Mexico, Canada, Europe, and China. We believe the goal is to force these countries to renegotiate prior trade treaties or remove tariffs. For Trump, the leverage is the threat, which does the heavy lifting by forcing countries to negotiate or face still retaliatory tariffs or other penalties.

We suspect that Trump may also be using dollar appreciation to force nations, especially emerging markets, to comply with his demands. If you are looking for clues, consider the following Tweet from Donald Trump (8/16/2018): “Money is pouring into our cherished DOLLAR like rarely before.” Based on his bragging it seems Trump has few qualms about the recent strength of the U.S. dollar.

Regardless of the causes of the recent ascent of the U.S. dollar versus most other currencies, there is little doubt that Trump is using the dollar as a negotiating tactic to get what he wants.

There are a few reasons that Trump would manipulate the dollar, verbally or in actuality, to bring Turkey to the negotiating table. While we have no unique insight, the following reasons should be considered:

  • Turkey opposes U.S. sanctions on Iran and vows to ignore them
  • Turkey sits at a strategically important geographic intersection surrounded by Europe and Asia through which much east-to-west international trade passes
  • If in a position to provide Turkey with a bailout, the administration can slow the growing de-dollarization trend

The bottom line is that it is likely that Trump is angling to sway Turkey towards stronger relationships with the U.S. in order to influence its relationship with China, Russia, and Iran. Keep in mind China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, thought of as a new silk road, would provide increased economic competition and harm to America’s economic interests. China relies on Turkey’s participation to complete this project.  As we put the finishing touches on this article, we also learned that Turkey, Iran, and Russia are in talks to schedule a trilateral summit.

Domestic Concerns

There is a healthy debate to be had about whether or not the dollar is being used as a negotiating lever. Since we may never know the answer, we focus on the potential outcomes if it is. If the dollar does strengthen further, how might it affect economic activity and assets?

The following graph, courtesy David Rosenberg at Gluskin Sheff, shows the recent decline of many assets that are sensitive to the value of the U.S. dollar.

Of the assets above, only oil and U.S. homebuilders are having much effect on the U.S. economy or the performance of domestic investments. We think these losses will be broader-based globally and involve the US stock and bond markets if the dollar continues to appreciate. The following are potential domestic issues that could be brought about by further strengthening of the U.S. dollar:

  • Deflation
  • Worsening trade deficit, possibly prompting tougher sanctions and tariffs
  • Reduced corporate earnings
  • Contagion from a banking crisis in emerging markets spreading to domestic banks

When those and other economic headwinds become more evident, it is likely all markets will react. That reaction may move from asset class to asset class sequentially, as we are currently observing, or it may hit all assets at once in a sudden cascade of revaluation.

Summary

As we wrote this article, the U.S. stock market is showing some signs of weakness. Earnings-per-share forecasts for the S&P 500 have risen by 18% this year but the index is up only 6%. This might be an acknowledgment by investors of the international and domestic problems associated with dollar strength, or it may be something else entirely like liquidity constraints. If the market continues to stagnate as the dollar moves higher, we should turn our attention to the Administration for signs of rising concern over the value of the U.S. dollar.

If in fact they do change their stance on the “cherished DOLLAR”, we would take this as a signal that either the domestic pain of a rising dollar has reached its threshold, or Turkey is acquiescing to U.S. demands. If the dollar fails to respond to verbal or direct manipulation, then it would be clear the market has another agenda and our concerns would be much graver.

For additional context on the role of the U.S. dollar in the global economy, we recommend our prior article Triffin Warned Us.

Wicksell’s Elegant Model

“It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” Mickey Mantle

The word discipline has two closely related applications. Discipline may refer to the instruction and nurturing of an individual. It can also carry the connotation of censure or punishment. The purpose of discipline, in either case, is to sustain integrity or aim toward improvement. Although difficult and often painful in the moment, discipline frequently holds long-lasting benefits. Conversely, a person or entity living without discipline is likely following a path of self-destruction.

The same holds true for an economic system. After all, economics is simply the study of the collective decision-making of individuals with regard to their resources. Where capital is involved, discipline is either applied or neglected through the mechanism of interest rates. To apply a simple analogy, in those places where water is plentiful, cheap, and readily available through pipes and faucets, it is largely taken for granted. It is used for the basic necessities of bathing and drinking but also to wash our cars and dogs. In countries where clean water is not easily accessible, it is regarded as a precious resource and decidedly not taken for granted or wasted for sub-optimal uses.

In much the same way, when capital is easily accessible and cheap, how it is used will more often be sub-optimal. If I can borrow at 2% and there appear to be many investments that will return more than that, I am less likely to put forth the same energy to find the best opportunity. Indeed, at that low cost, I may not even use borrowed money for a productive purpose but rather for a vacation or bigger house, the monetary equivalent of using water to hose off the patio. Less rigor is applied when rates are low, thus raising the likelihood of misallocating capital.

Happy Talk

In November 2010, The Washington Post published an article by then Federal Reserve (Fed) Chairman Ben Bernanke entitled What the Fed did and why: supporting the recovery and sustaining price stability. In the article, Bernanke made a case for expanding on extraordinary policies due to still high unemployment and “too low” inflation. In summary, he stated that “Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

To minimize concerns about the side effects or consequences of these policies he went on, “Although asset purchases are relatively unfamiliar as a tool of monetary policy, some concerns about this approach are overstated.” In his concluding comments he added, “We have made all necessary preparations, and we are confident that we have the tools to unwind these policies at the appropriate time.” During her tenure as Fed Chair, Janet Yellen reiterated those sentiments.

Taken in whole or in part, Bernanke’s comments then and now are both inconsistent and contradictory. Leaving the absurd counterfactuals often invoked aside, if asset purchases were in 2010 “unfamiliar as a tool of monetary policy,” then what was the basis for knowing concerns to be “overstated”? Furthermore, what might be the longer-term effects of the radical conditions under which the economy has been operating since 2009? What was the basis of policy-makers’ arguments that extraordinary policies will not breed unseen instabilities and risks? Finally, there is no argument that the Fed has “the tools to unwind these policies,” there is only the question of what the implications might be when they do.

In the same way that no society, domestic or global, has ever engaged in the kinds of extraordinary monetary policies enacted since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), neither has any society ever tried to extract itself from them. These truths mandate that the uncertainty about the future path of the U.S. economy is far more acute than advertised.

Even though policy-makers themselves offered no evidence of having humbly and thoroughly thought through the implications of post-GFC policies, there is significant research and analysis from which we can draw to consider their implications apart from the happy talk being offered by those who bear no accountability. Looking back on the past 60+ years and observing the early stages of efforts to “unwind” extraordinary policies offers a clearer lens for assessing these questions and deriving better answers.

The Ghost of Irving Fisher

Irving Fisher is probably best known by passive observers as the economist whose ill-timed declaration that “stock prices have reached a permanently high plateau” came just weeks before the 1929 stock market crash. He remained bullish and was broke within four weeks as the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 50%. Likewise, his reputation suffered a similar fate.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, that experience led to one of his most important works, The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions. In that paper, Fisher argues that overly liberal credit policies encourage Americans to take on too much debt, just as he had done to invest more heavily in stocks. More importantly, however, is the point he makes regarding the relationship between debt, assets and cash flow. He suggests that if a large amount of debt is backed by assets as opposed to cash flow, then a decline in the value of those assets would initiate a deflationary spiral.

Both of those circumstances – too much debt and debt backed by assets as opposed to cash flow – certainly hold true in 2018 much as they did in 2007 and 1929. The re-emergence of this unstable environment has been nurtured by a Federal Reserve that seems to have had it mind all along.

Even though Irving Fisher was proven right in the modern-day GFC, the Fed has ever since been trying to feed the U.S. economy at no cost even though extended periods of cheap money typically carry an expensive price tag. Just because the stock market does not yet reflect negative implications does not mean that there will be no consequences. The basic economic laws of cause and effect have always supported the well-known rule that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Cheap Money or Expensive Habit?

Interest rates are the price of money, what a lender will receive and what a borrower will pay. To measure whether the price of money is cheap or expensive on a macro level we analyze interest rates on 3-month Treasury Bills deflated by the annualized consumer price index (CPI).  Using data back to 1954, the average real rate on 3-month T-Bills is +0.855% as illustrated by the dotted line on the chart below.

When the real rate falls below 0.20%, 0.65% below the long-term average, we consider that to be far enough away from the average to be improperly low. The shaded areas on the chart denote those periods where the real 3-month T-Bill rate is 0.20% or below.

Of note, there are two significant timeframes when real rates were abnormally low. The first was from 1973 to 1980 and the second is the better part of the last 18 years. The shaded areas indicating abnormally low real interest rates will appear on the charts that follow.

The chart below highlights real GDP growth. The post-war average real growth rate of the U.S. economy has been 3.20%. Based on a seven-year moving average of real economic growth as a proxy for the structural growth rate in the economy, there are two distinct periods of precipitous decline. First from 1968 to 1983 when the 7-year average growth rate fell from 5.4% to 2.4% and then again from 2000 to 2013 when it dropped from 4.1% to 0.9%. Interestingly, and probably not coincidentally, both of these periods align with time frames when U.S. real interest rates were abnormally low.

Revisiting the words of Ben Bernanke, “Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth.” That does not appear to be what has happened in the U.S. economy since his actions to reduce real rates well below zero. Although the 7-year average growth rate has in recent years risen from the 2013 lows, it remains below any point in time since at least 1954.

Similar to GDP growth in periods of low rates, the trend in productivity, shown in the chart below, also deteriorates. This evidence suggests something contrary to the Fed’s claims.

Despite what the central bankers tell us, there is a more convincing argument that cheap money is destructive to the economy and thus the wealth of the nation. This concept no doubt will run counter to what most investors think, so it is time to enlist the work of yet another influential economist.

Wicksell’s Elegant Model

Knut Wicksell was a 19th-century Swedish economist who took an elegantly simple approach to explain the interaction of interest rates and economic cycles. His model states that there are two interest rates in an economy.

First, there is the “natural rate” which reflects the structural growth rate of the economy (which is also reflective of the growth rate of corporate earnings). The natural rate is the combined growth of the working age population and the growth in productivity. The chart of the 7-year moving average of GDP growth above serves as a reasonable proxy for the structural economic growth rate.

Second, Wicksell holds that there is the “market rate” or the cost of money in the economy as determined by supply and demand. Although it is difficult to measure these terms with precision, they are generally accurate. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.”

According to Wicksell, when the market rate is below the natural rate, there is an incentive to borrow and reinvest in an economy at the higher natural rate. This normally leads to an economic boom until demand drives up the market rate and eventually chokes off demand. When the market rate exceeds the natural rate, borrowing slows along with economic activity eventually leading to a recession, and the market rate again falls back below the natural rate. Wicksell viewed the divergences between the natural rate and the market rate as the mechanism by which the economic cycle is determined. If a divergence between the natural rate and the market rate is abnormally sustained, it causes a severe misallocation of capital.

If the market rate rises above the natural rate of interest, then no smart businessman would be willing to borrow at 5% to invest in a project with an expected return of only 2%. Furthermore, no wise lender would approve it. In this environment, only those with projects promising higher marginal returns would receive capital. On the other hand, if market rates of interest are held abnormally below the natural rate then capital allocation decisions are not made on the basis of marginal efficiency but according to the average return on invested capital. This explains why, in those periods, more speculative assets such as stocks and real estate boom.

To further refine what Wicksell meant, consider the poor growth rate of the U.S. economy. Despite its longevity, the post-GFC expansion is the weakest recovery on record. As the charts above reflect, the market rate has been below the natural rate of the economy for most of the time since 2001. Wicksell’s theory explains that healthy, organic growth in an economy transpires when only those who are deserving of capital obtain it. In other words, those who can invest and achieve a return on capital higher than that of the natural rate have access to it. If undeserving investors gain access to capital, then those who most deserve it are crowded out. This is the misallocation of capital between those who deserve it and put it to productive uses and those who do not. The result is that the structural growth rate of the economy will decline because capital is not efficiently distributed and employed for highest and best use.

Per Wicksell, optimal policy should aim at keeping the natural rate and the market rate as closely aligned as possible to prevent misallocation. But when short-term market rates are below the natural rate, intelligent investors respond appropriately. They borrow heavily at the low rate and buy existing assets with somewhat predictable returns and shorter time horizons. Financial assets skyrocket in value while long-term, cash-flow driven investments with riskier prospects languish. The bottom line: existing assets rise in value but few new assets are added to the capital stock, which is decidedly bad for productivity and the structural growth of the economy.

Summary

As central bankers continue to espouse policies leading to market rates well-below the natural rate, then, contrary to their claims, structural economic growth will fail to accelerate and will actually continue to contract. The irony is that the experimental policies, such as those prescribed by Bernanke and Yellen, are complicit in constraining the growth the economy desperately needs. As growth languishes, central bankers are likely to keep interest rates too low which will itself lead to still lower structural growth rates. Eventually, and almost mercifully, structural growth will fall below zero. The misallocated capital in the system will lead to defaults by those who should never have been allocated capital in the first place. The magnitude and trauma of the ensuing financial crisis will be determined by the length of time it takes for the economy to finally reach that flashpoint.

As discussed in the introduction, intentionally low-interest rates as directed by the Fed is reflective of negligent monetary policy which encourages the sub-optimal use of debt. Given the longevity of this neglect, the activities of the market have developed a muscle memory response to low rates. Adjusting to a new environment, one that imposes discipline through higher rates will logically be an agonizing process. Although painful, the U.S. economy is resilient enough to recover. The bigger question is do we have Volcker-esque leadership that is willing to impose the proper discipline as opposed to continuing down a path of self-destruction? In the words of Warren Buffett, chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.