The business cycle is dead! Long live the business cycle!
Not too long ago, in a land not so far away, the business cycle was declared to be defeated. Policymakers at the Federal Reserve were credited with slaying the pesky beast that featured recessions as part of its nature. Such was the faith in the permanence of the business cycle’s demise that the era was given its own label, The Great Moderation, a perfect world in which inflation ran not too hot or too cold and profit growth was accepted as the steady state.
As is so often the case, reality rudely disturbed nirvana’s prospects. The Great Moderation devolved into the Great Recession precipitated by one of the most devastating financial crises in U.S. history. The veneer of calm advertised over the prior years was stripped away. In its stead, economists had to concede that an era of benign monetary policy had encouraged malinvestment, the scourge that Austrian Ludwig von Mises warned of in the early 20th century. An overabundance of debt, if left unchecked, inevitably leads to the misallocation of resources. In the case of the first years of the 2000s, the target was, of course, the housing market.
The hope today is that the current era of easy monetary policy will have no deep economic ramifications. Such thinking, though, may prove to be naive. It goes without saying that the heat of the financial crisis merited a monumental response on policymakers’ part. That said, the most glaring outgrowth has been politicians’ exploiting low interest rates to their benefit. While it’s conceivable that well-intentioned central bankers want no part in encouraging Congressional malfeasance, the fact remains that the lack of action on politicians’ part would not have been possible absent the Fed’s allowing Congress to abdicate its responsibilities to the manna of easy money.
Of course, we all appear to have been spoiled over the last 25 years. A funny thing happened when the Fed placed a floor under stock prices with assurances that investors’ pain and suffering would be mitigated – recessions faded from the norm. Over the past 25 years, the economy has contracted one-fourth as often as it did in the 25 years that preceded this benign era. Hence the illusion of prosperity, one that has rendered investors complacent to the point of being comatose. That’s what happens when entire industries are able to run with more capacity than demand validates simply because the credit to remain in operation is there for the taking. To take but one example, capacity utilization is at 78.1 percent, shy of the 30-year average of 79.6 percent some six years into the current recovery. The downside is that the cathartic cleansing that takes place when recession is allowed to play out all the way to the bitter end of a bankruptcy cycle never occurs – winners and losers alike stay in business.
The savvy fellows in the C-suites are not blind to reduced competitiveness. As such they are remiss to expand their core businesses too much, that is, until the time they can truly assess the operating environment in a post-easy money world. The tricky part is that the credit is still there for the taking. What’s to be done? In the words of one of the wisest owls on Wall Street, UBS’s Art Cashin, such environments raise the not-so-fine art of financial engineering to a “botox state”. It’s no secret that companies have been gorging themselves on share buybacks and mergers and acquisitions, non-productive but highly lucrative endeavors. When combined the results are magnificent – costs are cut, profits juiced and bonus season becomes the most wonderful time of the year.
The insult added to the economic injury is the players who are compelled to underwrite the not-so-virtuous cycle. Broken pension accounting and incentives continue to force the hands of the individuals tasked with allocating the portfolios underlying the nation’s $18 trillion in public pension obligations. One of the least discussed consequences of easy monetary policy is the damage wrought on the nation’s pension system. Not only have low interest rates compounded underfunded statuses, they have driven pension assets into riskier and less liquid investments than anything prudence would dictate. The catalyst is the perverse rate of return assumptions that are wholly disconnected from reality. Averaging 7.75 percent, these bogeys have forced allocations into credit plays, many of which are caged in the least liquid corners of the debt markets. The irony is that many pensions have sought to diversify away from their bloated equity holdings by seeking out what they perceive to be the traditional safe harbor of fixed income investments, much of which flows straight back into the stock market via debt-financed share buybacks and M&A.
All retirees’ security is thus at risk when the massive overvaluation in fixed income and equity markets eventually rights itself. Pension math, however, will forestall the day of reckoning in the financial markets given the demographic surge in retiring beneficiaries that require states and municipalities to top off pensions’ coffers. Pensions will thus dig themselves into a deeper grave than they would otherwise by buying the credit craze more time.
Meanwhile, would-be retirees who don’t have the safety of promised pensions continue to be punished by low interest rates. The past seven years have criminalized conservative cash savings. The Swiss Re report quantified what U.S. savers have lost in interest income at $470 billion, while debtors had an easier time. It’s no coincidence that the average 401k balance for a household nearing retirement will only cover two years based on the nation’s median income. Nor is it any wonder that the labor force participation rate for those aged 55 and older has increased by three percentage points over the past decade. If only they were all earning what they did in their prime years.
And the lesson to be learned when making ends meet is simply not feasible? That would be the tried and true economic offset, the magic behind the miracle of our consuming nation, which for too long now has been debt that pulls forward the demand that should have to wait. Despite the collapse in mortgages, overall household debt remains elevated; it isn’t that far below its pre-recession level, and households are now splurging on cars as lending standards have caved. Even credit card borrowing is making a comeback – the average household’s credit card balance of $7,177 is the highest in six years. Meanwhile, student debt is scaling record heights as families struggle to keep pace with the most egregious inflation plaguing household budgets, that of higher education.
As for the gravest sin of the QE era, in the fiscal year 2015, the U.S. government paid 1.8 percent on public debt. One would be hard pressed to identify any other debtor whose borrowing costs decrease despite its trebling in debt outstanding. Actually, that’s a privilege we need to protect. As for indemnifying the nation’s balance sheet, that opportunity has been squandered by spineless politicians who would rather maintain the veneer of scant deficits rather than extend the maturity of the nation’s debts. Our wise neighbors to the south recently issued a 100-year bond. Where, one must ask, is our leaders’ wisdom when we need it most?
Could it be that hiding behind the Fed’s largesse is the path of least resistance? It would certainly appear to be the case. All the while, the excesses in the financial markets continue to build unchecked. The time has long come and gone to abandon the model-driven decision framework that pushes the Fed into an ever-shrinking corner. It is high time central bankers acknowledge their complicity in enabling Congress to fiddle while the country burns. As was the case with the revelation that the Great Moderation was but a myth, it is crucial that our leaders retake the country’s reins thus also bringing to an end the deeply damaging era of The Great Abdication.
Up next: Some ideas on next steps for the country.