Traders, bloggers, media talking heads, and pundits of all stripes went into a feverish sweat as they anticipated the comments of Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen at the annual economic summit held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When Yellen, arguably the most dovish Fed Chairman in history, uttered, “I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months,” an endless stream of commentators used this opportunity to spout out a never-ending stream of predictions describing the looming consequences of such a potential rate increase.
As I’ve stated before, the Fed receives both too much blame and too much credit for basically doing nothing except moving short-term interest rates up or down (and most of the time they do nothing). However, until the next Fed meeting in September (or later), we all will be placed in purgatory with non-stop speculation regarding the timing of the next rate increase.
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The ludicrous and myopic analysis can be encapsulated by the recent article written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Fed writer Jon Hilsenrath, in his piece titled, The Great Unraveling: Fed Missteps Fueled 2016 Populist Revolt. Somehow, Hilsenrath is making the case that a group of 12 older, white people that meet eight times per year in Washington to discuss interest rate policy based on inflation and employment trends has singlehandedly created income inequality, and a populist movement leading to the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
While this Fed scapegoat explanation is quite convenient for the doom-and-gloomers (see The Fed Ate My Homework), it is way off base. I hate to break it to Mr. Hilsenrath, or other conspiracy theorists and perma-bears, but blaming a small group of boring bankers is an overly-simplistic “straw man” argument that does not address the infinite number of other factors contributing to our nation’s social and economic problems.
Ever since the bull market began in 2009, a pervasive skepticism and mistrust have kept the bull market climbing a wall of worry to all-time record levels. In the process, Hilsenrath et. al. have proliferated an inexhaustible list of myths about the Fed and its powers. Here are some of them:
Myth #1: The printing of money by the Fed has led to an artificially inflated stock market bubble and Ponzi Scheme.
- As stock prices have more than tripled over the last eight years to record levels, I’ve reveled in the hypocrisy of the “money printers” contention. First of all, the money printing derived from Quantitative Easing (QE) was originally cited as the sole reason for low, declining interest rates and the rising stock market. The money printing community vociferously predicted once QE ended, as it eventually did in 2014, interest rates would explode higher and stock market prices would collapse. What happened? The exact opposite occurred. Interest rates have gone to record low levels, and stock prices have advanced to all-time record highs.
Myth #2: The Fed controls all interest rates.
- Yes, the Fed can influence short-term interest rates through bond purchases and the targeting of the Federal Funds rate. However, the Fed has little-to-no influence on longer-term interest rates. The massive global bond market dwarfs the size of the Fed and U.S. stock market, and as such, large global financial institutions, pensions, hedge funds, and millions of other investors around the world have more influence on longer-term interest rates. The relationship between the 10-Year Treasury Note yield and the Fed’s monetary policy is loose at best.
Myth #3: The stock market will crash when the Fed raises interest rates.
- Well, we can see that logic is already wrong because the stock market is up significantly since the Fed raised interest rates in mid-December 2015. It is true that additional interest rate hikes are likely to occur in our future, but that does not necessarily mean stock prices are going to plummet. Commentators and bloggers are already panicking about a potential rate hike in September. Before you go jump out a window, let’s put this potential rate hike into context. For starters, let’s not forget the “dove of all doves,” Janet Yellen, is in charge and there has only been one rate increase 0f 0.25% over the last decade. As I point out in one of my previous articles (see Fed Fatigue), stock prices increased during the last rate hike cycle (2004 – 2006) when the Fed raised interest rates from 1.0% to 5.25% (the equivalent of another 16 rate hikes of 0.25%). The world didn’t end in 1994 either, when the Fed Funds rate increased from 3% to 6% over a short time frame, and stocks finished roughly flat for the period. Inflation levels remain at relatively low levels, and the Fed has moved less than 10% of recent hike cycles, so now is not the time to panic. Regardless of what the fear mongers say, the Fed and the bull market fairy godmother (Janet Yellen) will be measured and deliberate in its policies and will verify that any policy action is made into a healthy, strengthening economy.
Myth #4: Stimulative monetary policies instituted by the Fed and other central banks will lead to hyperinflation.
- Japan has done QE for decades, and QE efforts in the U.S. and Europe have also disproved the hyperinflation myth. While commentators, pundits, and journalists like to all point and blame Janet Yellen and the Fed for today’s so-called artificially low interest rates, one does not need to be a genius to realize there are other factors contributing to low rates and inflation. Declining interest rates and inflation are nothing new…this has been going on for over 35 years! (see chart below) As I have discussed previously the larger contributors to declining interest rates and disinflation are technology, globalization, and emerging markets (see Why 0% Interest Rates?). By next year, over one-third of the world’s population is expected to own a smartphone (2.6 billion people), the equivalent of a supercomputer in the palm of their hands. Mobile communication, robotics, self-driving cars, virtual & augmented reality, drones, artificial intelligence, drones, biotechnology, and other technologies are dramatically impacting productivity (i.e., downward pressure on prices and interest rates). These advancements, combined with the billions of low-priced workers in emerging markets, who are lifting themselves out of poverty, are contributing to the declining rate/inflation trend.
As the next Fed meeting approaches, there is no doubt the airwaves and internet will be filled with alarmist calls from the likes of Jon Hilsenrath and other Fed-haters. Fortunately, more informed financial market observers will be able to filter out this noise and be able to separate out the many Fed and interest rate myths from the reality.