by Gonzalo Lira
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2012
This is the problem Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve currently have—and it’s their own stupid fault: They have promised to maintain interest rates at effectively 0% until at least the end of 2014—they have in fact announced this zero interest-rate policy (ZIRP) as the hallmark of their strategy to reignite the economy—
—but then they’re surprised when businesses aren’t borrowing more. They’re surprised when lending is in fact contracting. They’re surprised when the American economy doesn’t start borrowing—and thus growing—like crazy.
So the American economy obviously doesn’t benefit from ZIRP. In fact, it stagnates because of ZIRP.
Leaving aside the deplorable notion that debt-fueled consumption is “growth”, businesses are not going to borrow to expand during the announced period of ZIRP, because business owners will say, “I’m really not sure if my market is growing—and since I can get a low-interest loan for at least the next three years, I think I’m going to hold off on any expansion of my business, hold off on hiring new workers, and instead wait and see if the economy really does pick up. If it doesn’t pick up, I won’t have more debt to service. And if it does pick up, I can always borrow and expand later.”
“I can always borrow and expand later”: That’s what every sensible business owner is saying today. Why eat free chocolate now—when I can eat it for free later? Why borrow for free now—when I can borrow for free later?
And of course, later becomes never.
So then, if businesses—and the wider economy—do not benefit from ZIRP, who does?
Why, the banks and the Federal government! (Yeah, I know:How am I not surprised … ?)
See, the banks get their 0% loan from the Federal Reserve—and promptly go out and buy U.S. Treasury bonds, yielding 2% or so. Sure, a 2% yield is nothing—but it’s a whole lot of something when it is risk-free, and adds massively to the banks’ bottom line. And ultimately to the banksters’ bonuses. After all, the Federal government isn’t borrowing twenty bucks for gas: It’s borrowing $1.6 trillion a year—every year.
Thus the Federal government, that glutton for debt, also benefits from ZIRP.
Worse still, ZIRP is a disincentive to reduce the deficit and the overall debt. Since Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are putting out 0% money over the next three years, the Federal government will be under zero-pressure to reduce the deficit and pay down the debt. In fact, ZIRP encourages fiscal irresponsibility. After all, it is the rising coupon payment which eventually leads to rising debt levels being choked off.
ZIRP doesn’t eliminate the Minsky Moment—that is, the Day of Debt Reckoning. Rather, ZIRP merely postpones it—while making it a whole lot bigger.
Thus the Federal Reserve’s zero interest-rate policy does not help businesses expand and thus hire more workers to restart the economy; it does not encourage banks to lend to economically productive sectors; and it does not get the Federal government to begin reducing the deficit, let alone the debt.
In fact, ZIRP makes all these problems worse.