The Dow fell 238 points yesterday. And Treasury debt rallied. The yield on the 10-year T-note fell the most in nine months — to 2.4%.
News reports blamed ‘geopolitical challenges’ in Hong Kong, the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere.
That may be part of it. But this is also October — the month QE is expected to end.
Between 2009 and 2014, the Federal Reserve bought $3.6 trillion of US government and mortgage-related notes and bonds. During that time, $5 trillion has been added to the value of the US stock market. And the price of the average house has risen by $60,000.
This was achieved largely by holding Mr Market’s head underwater until he stopped squirming.
We don’t know what the natural real interest rate should be. Only Mr Market, if he were among the living, could tell us.
But yesterday’s action suggests it is lower than almost anyone thought.
But whatever the interest rate ‘should’ be…if it isn’t a very low number, the economy will soon be in deep trouble. And if it is a very low number, the economy already is in deep trouble.
In other words, there is no yield above, say, 3% on the 10-year T-note that won’t cripple the economy. And there is no yield below, say, 2% that doesn’t mean it has already had both its legs broken.
Does that make sense, dear reader?
A naturally low interest rate signals that there are few willing borrowers — perhaps because the economy is creaking to a halt…or perhaps because foreigners are afraid to put their money anywhere else.
A naturally high interest rate signals that business is picking up. Borrowers need money to finance expansion. Interest rates might be expected to return to ‘normal’.
Today’s debt-soaked institutions couldn’t stand it. Businesses and government have added trillions of dollars in debt since 2008.
Both are in worse shape to withstand a crisis…or even moderately higher interest rates…than they were then before.
Take the US federal government, for example…
People typically focus on the deficit as the measure of the feds’ borrowing. Actually, it is many times that amount. Because the feds reduced their borrowing costs by shifting from long-term bonds to short-term notes and bills.
This means Washington has to roll over about $8 trillion in debt a year.
It also means that even a small increase in interest rates would be disastrous to US finances. From Michael Snyder, writing at The Economic Collapse blog:
‘The only way that this game can continue is if the US government can continue to borrow gigantic piles of money at ridiculously low interest rates.
‘In the United States today, we have a heavily socialized system that hands out checks to nearly half the population. In fact, 49% of all Americans live in a home that gets direct monetary benefits from the federal government each month according to the US Census Bureau.
‘And it is hard to believe, but Americans received more than $2 trillion in benefits from the federal government last year alone.
‘At this point, the primary function of the federal government is taking money from some people and giving it to others. In fact, more than 70% of all federal spending goes to “dependence-creating programs,” and the government runs approximately 80 different “means-tested welfare programs” right now.
‘But the big problem is that the government is giving out far more money than it is taking in, so it has to borrow the difference. As long as we can continue to borrow at super low interest rates, the status quo can continue.’
The vanity of the Fed’s interest policy is that it presumes a group of economists can do a better job of finding a suitable price for credit (money) than Mr Market.
Fed economists must put something in their morning coffee. How else could they believe two contradictory things all day long without going insane?
First, they believe that only Mr Market knows what things should cost. Second, they also believe they can get along without him.
The central tenet of the Efficient Market Hypothesis is that Mr Market knows more than we do. If he sets a price, it may not be perfect, but there isn’t a better one.
That is the doctrine that led Greenspan, Bernanke and Yellen to tell us that they wouldn’t know a bubble if it exploded in their faces.
How could prices be ‘too high’?
It is logically impossible, if markets are ‘efficient’ at setting prices.
Likewise, how could interest rates be ‘too low’ — even if the Fed put them there?
Said efficient markets guru Eugene Fama in a 2010 interview: ‘I don’t even know what a bubble means.’
In theory, there is nothing to worry about no matter how ‘out of whack’ things seem to get. No bubbles. No distortions. No problems. Every price is beautiful, in its own way.
But in practice, the Fed’s naïve meddling causes big trouble…because the economy adapts to an unreal world.
Decisions are taken, and plans are made, based on distorted prices. Pretty soon, the economy as we have come to know it can’t live without them.
The US government has added more and more expenses. Without low rates, it can’t pay them. Again from Snyder:
- Back in 1965, only one out of every 50 Americans was on Medicaid. Today, more than 70 million Americans are on Medicaid, and it is being projected that Obamacare will add 16 million more Americans to the Medicaid rolls.
- When Medicare was first established, we were told that it would cost about $12 billion a year by the time 1990 rolled around. Instead, the federal government ended up spending $110 billion on the program in 1990, and the federal government spent approximately $600 billion on the program in 2013.
- It is being projected that the number of Americans on Medicare will grow from 50.7 million in 2012 to 73.2 million in 2025.
- At this point, Medicare is facing unfunded liabilities of more than 38 trillion dollars over the next 75 years. That comes to approximately $328,404 for every single household in the United States.
- Right now, there are approximately 63 million Americans collecting Social Security benefits. By 2035, that number is projected to soar to an astounding 91 million.
- Overall, the Social Security system is facing a $134-trillion shortfall over the next 75 years.
- The US government is facing a total of $222 trillion in unfunded liabilities during the years ahead. Social Security and Medicare make up the bulk of that.
Yes, dear reader, the longer you spend in the economists’ magical theory world, the more threatening the real world becomes.
For Markets and Money