Perception vs. Reality: Interest Rates & the Economy
There is a difference between perception and reality, especially as it relates to the Federal Reserve, the economy, and interest rates.
Perception: The common perception reflects a belief that Quantitative Easing (QE) – the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program – has artificially stimulated the economy and financial markets through lower interest rates. The widespread thinking follows that an end to tapering of QE will lead to a crash in the economy and financial markets.
Reality: As the chart below indicates, interest rates have risen during each round of QE (i.e., QE1/QE2/QE3) and fallen after the completion of each series of bond buying (currently at a pace of $85 billion per month in purchases). That’s right, the Federal Reserve has actually failed on its intent to lower interest rates. In fact, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note stands at 2.94% today, while at the time QE1 started five years ago, on December 16, 2008, the 10-year rate was dramatically lower (~2.13%). Sure, the argument can be made that rates declined in anticipation of the program’s initiation, but if that is indeed the case, the recent rate spike of the 10-year Treasury Note to the 3.0% level should reverse itself once tapering begins (i.e., interest rates should decline). Wow, I can hardly wait for the stimulative effects of tapering to start!
Fact or Fiction? QE Helps Economy
Taken from a slightly different angle, if you consider the impact of the Federal Reserve’s actions on the actual economy, arguably there are only loose connections. More specifically, if you look at the jobs picture, there is virtually NO correlation between QE activity and job creation (see unemployment claims chart below). There have been small upward blips along the QE1/QE2/QE3 path, but since the beginning of 2009, the declining trend in unemployment claims looks like a black diamond ski slope.
Moreover, if you look at a broad spectrum of economic charts since QE1 began, including data on capital spending, bank loans, corporate profits, vehicle sales, and other key figures related to the economy, the conclusion is the same – there is no discernible connection between the economic recovery and the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing initiatives.
I know many investors are highly skeptical of the stock market’s rebound, but is it possible that fundamental economic laws of supply and demand, in concert with efficient capital markets, could have something to do with the economic recovery? Booms and busts throughout history have come as a result of excesses and scarcities – in many cases assisted by undue amounts of fear and greed. We experienced these phenomena most recently with the tech and housing bubbles in the early and middle parts of last decade. Given the natural adjustments of supply and demand, coupled with the psychological scars and wounds from the last financial crisis, there is no clear evidence of a new bubble about to burst.
While it’s my personal view that many government initiatives, including QE, have had little impact on the economy, the Federal Reserve does have the ability to indirectly increase business and consumer confidence. Ben Bernanke clearly made this positive impact during the financial crisis through his creative implementation of unprecedented programs (TARP, TALF, QE, Twist, etc.). The imminent tapering and eventual conclusion of QE may result in a short-term hit to confidence, but the economy is standing on a much stronger economic foundation today. Making Ben Bernanke a scapegoat for rising interest rates is easy to do, but in actuality, an improving economy on stronger footing will likely have a larger bearing on the future direction of interest rates relative to any upcoming Fed actions.
Doubters remain plentiful, but the show still goes on. Not only are banks and individuals sitting on much sturdier and healthier balance sheets, but corporations are running lean operations that are reporting record profit margins while sitting on trillions of dollars in cash. In addition, with jobs on a slow but steady path to recovery, confidence at the CEO and consumer levels is also on the rise.
Despite all the negative perceptions surrounding the Fed’s pending tapering, reality dictates the impact from QE’s wind-down will likely to be more muted than anticipated. The mitigation of monetary easing is more a sign of sustainable economic strength than a sign of looming economic collapse. If this reality becomes the common perception, markets are likely to move higher.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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