The Daily Update - 'Why Do Economic Expansions End?' Part IV

Consider then the implications of short-term rates remaining at or below 3% for an extended period. In the usual recession scenario, the Fed raises its policy rate to the point where bank lending is either unprofitable or unwise. When that happens, banks invariably tighten lending standards, some of the less worthy borrowers struggle to obtain funding, and activity is constrained. To be clear, this ‘cleansing’ of debtors is a prerequisite for the next expansion; procrastination or life support, both of which waste valuable financial resources, simply delay the day of reckoning and make recessions longer and deeper.

Now consider then the implications of short-term rates remaining at or below 3% for an extended period, which is the Fed’s current outlook. Namely, the Fed expects short-term rate instruments, like commercial paper and overnight loans that are the main sources of funding for banks, to remain well below the current prime lending offered to commercial banks’ best customer – now 5-1/2%. Because the Federal Reserve has moved so gradually and predictably in raising short-term rates from very low levels, banks have been able to raise lending rates slowly as well, thereby maintaining ample margins on loans. In fact, loan margins have been at historic highs ever since the Fed lowered its policy rate to zero in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Banks tend to follow the Fed in adjusting lending rates to the cost of short-funding, albeit with some delay (i.e. banks mark up prices over costs), except at very low interest rates. This pricing behaviour implies that the Fed uses its policy rate in part as a tool for restoring banks’ balance sheets during times of stress as well as the converse - a means to cool off lending that threatens to overheat the economy.

That cyclical margin on loans is why an inverted yield curve is not necessarily a good predictor of recessions at very low interest rates. The Fed would have to raise the cost of borrowing above 5% to make loans unprofitable, and hence warrant tighter lending standards, whereas FOMC members now project the neutral policy rate at less than 3%. In short, an inversion of the yield curve enough to curtail lending does not seem likely anytime soon. Moreover, the Fed’s gradualism and predictability in recent years also has translated into a very gradual and manageable increase in borrowing costs. Indeed, the notion that Fed policy somehow has been destabilising or damaging to the real economy because interest rates have risen from very low levels is pure foolishness. Normalisation of the Fed’s balance sheet, on the other hand, has become problematic because it is on a collision course with the horrendous US budget deficit.

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