The Fed, interest rates and recession

On Friday, US stock markets fell to their lowest level since August 2015 in its third consecutive weekly decline.

S&P 500

In many previous posts, I have argued that stock markets are really still in a long-term secular ‘bear market’ of decline.  Stock market values follow the profitability of capital and, as I have argued in other posts, the profitability of US capital has not yet reached the bottom of its current downwave that, in my view, began in 1997, with various upturns (2001-6, 2009-13).  If that is correct, then the US stock market (and others as well) have yet to reach the bottom of this secular bear market that began in 2000 with the hi-tech bubble bust.

Double top

This latest stock market collapse has taken place within weeks of the decision of the US Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee (FOMC) deciding for the first time for nearly ten years to raise its policy rate that sets the floor on interest rates in the US and abroad.  At the time, Fed chief Janet Yellen said that the US economy “is on a path of sustainable improvement.” and“we are confident in the US economy”, even if borrowing rates rise.

As I commented at the time “This was ironic because just before the Fed hiked its interest rate, the figures for US industrial production in November came up and they showed the worst fall since December 2009 at the end of the Great Recession.”  Since then we have had further poor data on the US economy with weak retail sales and industrial production for December, suggesting that US real GDP growth in the last quarter of 2015 was likely to be as low as just 1%.

Stock markets falling and the US economy slowing, with the rest of the world stagnating and China apparently imploding: this is putting egg on the face of Janet Yellen, as the UK Guardian’s economic correspondent put it, Larry Elliott.

I have argued that there was a serious danger that the US Fed would repeat the mistake it made in 1937 during the last Great Depression of the 1930s.  Then it concluded that the US economy had sufficiently recovered to enable it to start raising interest rates.  Within a year, the economy was back in a severe recession that it did not recover from until America entered the world war in 1941.

So should the Fed be hiking interest rates at this time?  This question was debated at the recent annual meeting of the American Economics Association (ASSA 2016) by the great and the good of mainstream economics.  There were two sorts of the responses to this question from mainstream economics.

The first was to ignore the fact of the weak global and US economic recovery or argue that it didn’t matter.  At the main debate on the issue among leading luminaries of the mainstream, Martin Feldstein, former economics advisor to Bush, reckoned that the US economy was recovering well with unemployment down and incomes rising.  So there was nothing to worry about.

John Taylor, leading economist from Stanford University, took a different tack.  Yes, the US economy was very weak but this was the fault of economic and monetary policies of the current US administration and the Federal Reserve.  What was needed was to reduce regulation of the banks and large companies so they can grow and for the Fed to end its cheap money policy.  Let’s just get back to business as usual and things will be fine.  Taylor appeared oblivious to the fact that it was the failure to regulate the banks and financial system or to stop the introduction of speculative financial instruments that contributed to the global financial crash in the first place!

But the main response of the other debaters at the mainstream meeting was to conclude that we just don’t know why the economic recovery was so weak and now seems to be faltering.  Vice chair of the Fed, Stanley Fischer, offered several possible reasons, but said he did not know which was right.  Fischer was worried that the ‘equilibrium rate of interest’, (now called R*) where savings and investment are matched with full employment and moderate inflation looked very low, as inflation was near zero.  This was another way of saying that the equilibrium rate could be ‘zero bound’ and thus the economy was in some form of ‘secular stagnation’, as argued by Keynesians like Larry Summers.

But Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist of the IMF, ever the optimist, offered Fischer a positive answer.  Actually, the US economic recovery was beginning to look normal, after all.  You see, the infamous Phillips curve of the 1970s, namely that when unemployment fell, inflation would rise, was still operating weakly.  So as labour markets tightened, inflation would rise and the Fed would be justified in raising its policy rate as it had started to do.

I’ve discussed before this ‘equilibrium rate of interest’ idea (drawn from the work of neoclassical monetarist, Knut Wicksell).  Both Keynes and Marx looked, not to a concept of a ‘natural rate of interest’ but to the relation between the interest rate for holding or lending money to the profitability (or return) on productive capital.  Indeed, so did Wicksell.  According to Wicksell, the natural rate is “never high or low in itself, but only in relation to the profit which people can make with the money in their hands, and this, of course, varies. In good times, when trade is brisk, the rate of profit is high, and, what is of great consequence, is generally expected to remain high; in periods of depression it is low, and expected to remain low.”  But there was no mention of this relation between R* and the profitability of capital from the likes of Fischer or Blanchard at ASSA.

Another view is that of Austrian school of economics that argues that the easy money policy of the Fed and other central banks, including the use of quantitative easing (QE), i.e. ‘printing money’, has only fuelled the stock market and bond boom that is now bursting and distorted the allocation of investment into productive sectors.  This malinvestment must be quashed with a strong dose of monetary tightening to get interest back into line with the Wicksellian ‘natural equilibrium’.

This Austrian view has been promoted by the economists of the international central bankers association, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS).  The BIS economists reject the Keynesian view of ‘secular stagnation’ that must be overcome by more monetary and fiscal stimulus.  That is just making things worse, in their view.  They have done several studies to argue that what causes crises is excessive credit leading to malinvestment and financial bubbles that burst.  Their latest study of recessions in 22 rich countries dating back to the late 1960s claims just this.  It’s not a lack of demand that ‘causes’ economic crises under capitalism as Keynesians like Paul Krugman, Larry Summers or Brad DeLong argue, but malinvestment in the supply-side of the economy caused by too much debt.

Returning to Wicksell, the BIS economists reckon that if real interest rates (that’s after inflation is deducted) are held too low (i.e. below the ‘natural rate’ that equates savings and investment in the ‘real economy’), then credit bubbles and malinvestment ensue.  And rates are too low.  They are way into negative territory, not seen since the first post-war international slump of 1974-5.

The BIS reckons the Fed is right to hike interest rates, but what is wrong is that they have taken too long to do so.  Now the economy will have to go through ‘cold turkey’ or ‘creative destruction’ (to use the phrase of early 20th century Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter) to clear the system of excessive credit and unproductive investment.  In other words, another slump.

In a way, nothing has changed in the debates of the 1930s between the Keynesians who blame a lack of demand for the depression (with no real explanation of why demand slumped) and the Austerians (Austrians and monetarists like Milton Friedman) who blame excessive credit and the interference of central banks and governments in the ‘natural’ workings of the market.

Once again I have to trot out my hobby-horse on the debate within mainstream economics on whether the cause of the Great Recession and subsequent depression can be laid at the door of the lack of demand (Keynesian) or too much debt (Austrian).  Neither theory has a place for the profitability of capital in an economy that yet has a mode for production based on making a profit!

Yes, in a slump, there is a lack of demand (capitalists cut investment and households stop spending).  But that is a description of a slump, not an explanation.  Yes, too much debt can provoke a financial crisis and weigh down on future investment.  But why and when does debt or credit, a necessary part of capital accumulation, become ‘too much’?

The Marxist answer, in my view, is that debt becomes too much when it can no longer be serviced because the profits from productive investment become insufficient to sustain it.  And demand becomes inadequate when the profits from investment drop so much that capital stops employing labour and closes down companies and reduces the utilisation of plant and equipment.

Another irony of the debate within the mainstream at ASSA was a session by the so-called Real Business Cycle (RBC) theorists, a school of neoclassical macroeconomists, who deny that crises are due to a lack of demand or a liquidity trap, where even zero interest rates do not revive an economy, as Keynesians argue.  Steve Williamson of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, along with others, presented a paper in which they argued that the concept of secular stagnation caused by a liquidity trap and that the equilibrium rate of interest was very low, was nonsense.  These RBC theorists reckoned that low interest rates were not an indicator that the US economy was in stagnation and so hiking them would not cause a new recession.  Don’t look at interest rates, they said, look at the profitability of corporate capital.  That is what matters.  And that is at its highest for 30 years.

While many authors have documented the low and declining returns on government debt, these returns bear little resemblance to the returns on productive capital: The latter is a direct measure and a much better indicator of adequate private investment opportunities and has been rising for the past five years. Summers (2014) and others have articulated the secular stagnation hypothesis based on insufficient aggregate demand: The evidence on investment strongly suggests otherwise. Indeed, the private sector has undertaken large capital outlays since the end of the recession. The takeaway here is that the current recovery is not an example of secular stagnation. The evidence on investment and returns on productive capital shatter the essential components of the secular stagnation hypothesis.”

In my view, the RBC theorists are right that “the returns on productive capital” are a much better indicator of the state of the economy than interest rates and the unproductive debate on what is the right rate of interest.  But they are wrong in arguing that all is fine because profitability has never been higher.  As this blog and other Marxist authors have shown, US and global profitability is not at its highest but near its lows since 1945.  And this is especially the case with the profitability of productive assets (ie excluding finance and real estate).

Yes, there was a recovery of profitability in the neo-liberal period after the early 1980s, but it was limited and came to an end by the end of century.  The last 15 years or so has been a profitability downwave (with short rallies).  It is because of this downwave (and excessive debt that has accompanied it) that capitalism has failed to get out of the long depression.  The current stock market collapse is an indicator of this and perhaps heralds the next leg down in the global economy, whether the Fed hikes again in 2016 or not.

16 thoughts on “The Fed, interest rates and recession

  1. “Stock market values follow the profitability of capital…”

    That is only partly true. In the late 1990’s, the NASDAQ soared to ridiculous heights, even though many of the companies that comprised the index were making no profits at all. What in the end determines the prices of fictitious capital – be it in the form of shares or bonds – as with any other asset, which has no real value (because it is not the product of labour) as Marx sets out in Capital is the capitalised revenue.

    In just the same way that the price of land is calculated, as Marx demonstrates, by taking the annual rent, and multiplying this by the inverse of the average rate of interest, so the prices of shares and bonds, are determined, ultimately on the same basis.

    But, as the NASDAQ bubble demonstrated – a similar thing happened with the Railway Mania in the late 1840’s – the prices of shares can be massively inflated, even when there are no huge profits, providing revenues, and when the rate of interest remains stable. As happened in 1847, and a similar thing could be said about the bursting of the NASDAQ bubble, the UK property bubble in 1990, and so on, is that when the average rate of interest starts to rise, the feet are cut from beneath the market.

    As marx demonstrates, that rise or fall in interest rates is not in the gift of central banks, but is determined by the demand and supply of money-capital, which is itself conditioned by conditions in the real economy. In fact, an examination of Marx’s analysis of the interest rate cycle, is that it begins to rise, during periods of prosperity, when a rising mass of profits, and increased economic activity causes the demand for capital to rise relative to the supply.

    Globally, the average rate of interest is rising, as that demand for capital begins to outstrip the supply. As Andy Haldane has set out, in the 1970’s only around 10% of profits went to pay dividends, whereas currently it stands at around 70%, according to Clinton the figures in the US are similar. Without a significant increase in investment in productive-capital, the potential for higher profits, which would enable the payment of higher dividends, is very limited.

    An investment in the required accumulation of productive-capital, would raise the demand for capital relative to the supply sending interest rates higher still. It is not any significant fall in profitability that stands behind the falls in stock markets, but the inevitable rise in interest rates, which causes via the process of capitalisation, a fall in the prices of all revenue producing assets, be it shares, bonds, or property.

    The only reason that US Bond Markets have risen is a) because those markets have been highly rigged, with the federal Reserve owning a large proportion of US Treasuries, b) because the prices of other bonds around the globe have fallen, as capital has flowed to safe havens, backstopped by powerful state institutions, and c) other global interest rates have been forced higher than they would have been, as money has been sucked into these manipulated assets in the US.

    It only means that the crash in those assets will be more spectacular when it happens.

    1. Boffy in a nutshell: “It is not any significant fall in profitability that stands behind the falls in stock markets,”

      Right. Profits have vanished in metals, coal, oil production. Brazil, Russian, South Africa are in recession. If the EU isn’t in a recession again, it soon will be…again. 80% of nickel production, worldwide, loses money. China’s steel industry, source for over half of global output is, to say the least, struggling. Container shipping rates do not cover daily operating costs of the maritime transport container ships. Earnings are declining in the US…. but there’s no significant fall in profitability that stands behind the falls in the stock markets…

      Got that?

  2. Hi Boffy. You say: “Globally, the average rate of interest is rising, as that demand for capital begins to outstrip the supply.”

    Do you have any factual proof showing that as of today the demand for capital began to outstrip the supply?

    1. The global rise in interest rates is an indication that the demand for capital is beginning to outstrip the supply, because Marx defines the rate of interest in those terms, i.e. it is the market price of capital, determined by the interaction of the demand and supply for it.

      But, look at the situation facing Saudi Arabia, Norway and many more countries that in the last few decades have been major sources of loanable money-capital, thrown into global money markets, but who are now having to borrow from those markets.

      1. Boffy:

        “The global rise in interest rates is an indication that the demand for capital is beginning to outstrip the supply, because Marx defines the rate of interest in those terms, i.e. it is the market price of capital, determined by the interaction of the demand and supply for it.”

        On the planet earth, the above by Boffy is not an acceptable response to Memet’s request for FACTUAL proof that the rate of interest is rising because of “demand for capital.”

        Boffy provides an example of circular “reasoning,” or circle-jerk reasoning, with Bobby in the circle as the jerk. The rate of interest is rising because of increased demand for capital, says Boffy. How do we know there is an increased demand for capital? Because the rate of interest is rising, says Boffy.


        That’s factual on planet Boffy perhaps, but only because planet Boffy is a black hole.

        Saudi Arabia is not tapping the international debt markets in order to increase its CAPITAL. It is tapping the debt markets because REVENUES from its existing capital are being depleted.

        Capital spending across the globe is declining in relative terms wherever it has not already declined in absolute terms; loan activity for consumers is still below previous highs; US equity and bond mutual funds have experienced net outflows over several months, and Boffy tells us interest rates are increasing because the DEMAND for CAPITAL has increased, because Boffy’s connection to the real universe is solely random, and tangential, at best.

        Short version: this guy’s a nutter.

    2. If you want to see the relation between stock market performance and the performance of the economy, consider the following.

      Between 1950 and 1980, US GDP rose 850%, an average rise of 28% a year. During that period, that is more or less the period of the post war boom, the Dow Jones rose 312%, the S&P 500 rose 537%.

      By comparison, in the period 1980-2000, US GDP rose by just 250%. But, the Dow Jones rose by 1300%, whilst the S&P 500 rose by 1260%!

      The stock market bubble of 1847, mainly focussed on railway stocks. It occurred, during a period of boom with rising levels of profits, which caused a surplus of loanable money-capital, which caused interest rates to fall to very low levels. When the stock market bubble burst in 1847, it had nothing to do with falling profits, but was caused by a rising demand for money-capital, which caused interest rates to rise. Because of the 1844 Bank Act, that was exacerbated, as the Bank of England curtailed the supply of currency, as gold had left the country to pay for rising food imports.

      That caused a credit crunch, which led to a spike in interest rates, and a collapse of the bubble – Marx describes similar conditions behind the 1857 financial panic in his articles in the New York International Herald Tribune. The 1847 financial panic spread into the real economy, causing a 37% drop in economic activity, far worse than the effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

      When, the Bank of England suspended the Bank Act, and injected liquidity into the economy, the crisis was overcome, and the boom continued, with once more high rates and masses of profits being generated. As Marx and Engels describe, that boom then continued for a further ten years, until the 1857 financial panic, but the actual period of long wave boom did not itself end until around 1865.

    3. Memet,

      I thought that you might be interested in this, given your question. In the interview, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs describes the situation that capital is becoming tighter, i.e. demand for money-capital is outstripping the supply, which causes interest rates to rise.

      That rise in interest rates, as I set out previously causes a sharp fall in asset prices as a result of capitalisation, which is why we are seeing sharp falls in stock markets.

      Solomon points out that this tightness of capital means that companies will have to be resorting to capital markets with new public share offerings, which of course in itself by increasing the supply of such shares and bonds, acts to depress their prices.

      In fact, what we are seeing is a reflection of Marx’s point that,

      “If an untowardly large section of capitalists were to convert their capital into money-capital, the result would be a frightful depreciation of money-capital and a frightful fall in the rate of interest; many would at once face the impossibility of living on their interest, and would hence be compelled to reconvert into industrial capitalists.”

      The frightful depreciation of that money-capital, has been apparent in the huge inflation of asset prices, as that money-capital has been able to buy fewer and fewer shares and bonds, for any given amount of money-capital. The other consequence has been that despite a rising proportion of profits going to dividends and interest, the yield on these paper assets has continued to sink towards zero, as the prices of the assets have been massively inflated.

      The consequence, as Marx states above is that at some point, the economic laws kick in, and money-capital starts to get invested in productive-capital rather than paper assets yielding next to nothing, and which have a risk of capital losses rather than capital gains, as bubbles burst.

      As Marx put it,

      ““It would be still more absurd to presume that capital would yield interest on the basis of capitalist production without performing any productive function, i.e., without creating surplus-value, of which interest is just a part; that the capitalist mode of production would run its course without capitalist production.”

      1. Thank you Boffy. I have another question: what is, in your opinion, the effect of the Central Banks’ monetary policy to this “natural balance”?
        I ask you this because when we look at the timing of the rise of the interest rates we see that it coincides with the declarations of Yellen…

      2. Boffy: “Solomon points out that this tightness of capital means that companies will have to be resorting to capital markets with new public share offerings, which of course in itself by increasing the supply of such shares and bonds, acts to depress their prices.”

        Total nonsense. Corporate bond markets have more than tripled in size since 2000. The increased supply has not reduce the market price of the issues, as bond prices are inversely related to interest rates.

        But, on the contrary, the continued overproduction in the energy markets, the metal markets, maritime shipping, containerization, etc. has reduced the prices of these bonds traded int he secondary markets.

        Large increases of issues in emerging markets have played a large role in the bond market expansion, and the current increase in interest rates in EM bonds has nothing to do with an “increased demand for capital”– but just the opposite, the flight of capital away from these contracting, not expanding, markets.

        “Demand” for money-capital is “outstripping” supply? Exactly where is that the case? Certainly not in the EU, nor in the US. Does Boffy have a single number, an iota of data to back up his assertions? Of course he doesn’t.

        Where exactly is the “increased demand” for money-capital coming from? Corporations seeking funds for operating costs? Capital expansions?

        We are not about to see a plethora of IPOs in stock markets. Anybody who knows anything about stock markets knows that IPO issues and volumes decline when the markets are in “bear” territory; when prices are falling.

        Boffy demonstrates the singular ability to be exactly out of phase, by 180 degrees, with the real cycles of the economy.

        An unkind person might consider Boffy to be somewhat disconnected from the real world.

      3. Memet,

        There is no “natural balance”, no “natural rate of interest”, because, as Marx sets out, the rate of interest is the market price for capital, for its use value as capital, i.e. to be able to self-expand, and because this is not the product of labour, capital as capital has no value, so there is no value or price of production for this market price to revolve around, as there is with other commodities.

        The market price of capital is, as Marx describes, therefore, entirely determined by the interaction of supply and demand for it. If interest rates are rising that means that the demand for that capital is outstripping the supply of that capital, at current rates, and vice versa.

        But, central banks have no power to influence this, because all they can provide is currency not money-capital. A central bank can provide additional currency, but as Marx sets out in Theories of Surplus Value, quoting Hume and Massie, this cannot affect the average rate of interest. All it does, is to change the units of measurement on either side of the demand-supply equation for that capital.

        Marx set this out in Theories of Surplus Value, where he quotes David Hume and Joseph Massie to that effect . Locke had put forward the idea that interest rates were determined solely by the quantity of money put into circulation, and this view was also shared by William Petty.

        Marx writes,

        “Hume attacks Locke, Massie attacks both Petty and Locke, both of whom still held the view that the level of interest depends on the quantity of money, and that in fact the real object of the loan is money (not capital).

        Massie laid down more categorically than did Hume, that interest is merely a part of profit. Hume is mainly concerned to show that the value of money makes no difference to the rate of interest, since, given the proportion between interest and money-capital—6 per cent for example, that is, £6, rises or falls in value at the same time as the value of the £100 (and. therefore, of one pound sterling) rises or falls, but the proportion 6 is not affected by this.”

        And this is the reason that whatever central bankers may do, they cannot change the average rate of interest, even though they may be able to influence the price of various financial assets, and thereby some interest rates. But, where they reduce some interest rates, by such means, in one place, the consequence is necessarily to increase them elsewhere, so that this average is maintained. The only way that the supply of capital can be increased, so as to reduce interest rates is to create more of it.

        In other words, capital must create a greater mass of profit, either by raising the rate of profit, or else by increasing the amount of productive-capital employed. Secondly, that profit once realised, as money-capital, must be used to meet the demand for additional productive-capital, rather than being used as revenue. In other words, as Andy Haldane said recently, capital must stop “eating itself”.

  3. 2016 is not 1847 or 1857, seriously Boffy needs to, well first he needs to get in to the 20th century and if he can deal with that century then maybe just maybe he can finally enter the 21st. Wont hold my breath though.

  4. Michel can i ask you a question mate. Its something that i cant quite grasp. you have argued that there is a deflationary spiral spear headed primarily energy markets. alternatives such as Fracking and Tar sand, undercutting market share form OPEC. As such OPEC responded, by slashed the price of oil. This had a major effect on both alternatives, due mainly to the high extraction costs needed to sustain, its operation. However as you have argued with deflation this has a negative effect on debtors, as the real value of debt increase. You use statistical method to shows that in the 3 G japan, Europe and America. The combined levels of debt is 16 percent higher, than it was pre-2007 levels. But this is what i do not understand. recently the euro bound yield were measured at 1 percent, but surly as the value of debt increases the risk reward model should indicate; a higher a return on bound yield. No more so as levels particularly in Europe will rise. The only thing i can think of is that Fed and the E.C.B. has discouraged investors from investment in safe havens such in bounds, limiting their returns. We can see this with quantitative easing, drawing down interests rates.

    1. OPEC has not “slashed the price of oil.” OPEC sets production quotas not prices. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer in OPEC has increased production. It’s more than a semantic difference.

      Extraction costs for Saudi (and Kuwait, and Iraq) oil are very, very low, probably in the $2-$3 range. Overall, actual “extraction” costs for those companies reporting to the US EIA FRS survey are about $10 per barrel.

      The bond rates you are referencing are the rates for sovereign bonds, guaranteed by govts (and, more or less, central banks). In emerging market countries, and also in the US energy sector, and in the below investment grade “junk” bond markets, rates have been increasing for several months.

  5. Hi all– remember this from Boffy?–“I thought that you might be interested in this, given your question. In the interview, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs describes the situation that capital is becoming tighter, i.e. demand for money-capital is outstripping the supply, which causes interest rates to rise.

    That rise in interest rates, as I set out previously causes a sharp fall in asset prices as a result of capitalisation, which is why we are seeing sharp falls in stock markets.

    Solomon points out that this tightness of capital means that companies will have to be resorting to capital markets with new public share offerings, which of course in itself by increasing the supply of such shares and bonds, acts to depress their prices.”

    Well, here’s how it’s playing out so far. Today’s Financial Times (28 Jan 2016) reports “European bank debt sales slowest since 2008.”

    Says the article: “European banks have sold $42 billion of bonds so far this year, the lowest total since the financial crisis, as investors focus on new risks against a backdrop of market turmoil.

    Sales of bank bonds, which financial institutions use along with deposits to fund loans to the wider economy are 18 percent lower than the same period last, according to Dealogic. Issuance, which excludes covered bonds, is lower than any start to the year since 2008.

    After sharp declines in global stock markets and commodity prices, some ares of capital markets have closed in what is often one of the busiest months.

    ‘To pause for four to five days in January is unheard of in recent years,’ said Peter Mason, co-head of European financial institutions group at Barclays.

    Many debt bankers expect markets, especially in peripheral Europe to remain closed for some time. But the low-yield environment may revive appetite for bank debt sooner, especially for riskier, higher yielding bonds. …

    Banks, which issue bonds much more frequently than non-financial companies have in some cases been forced to turn to covered bonds–a market that provides investors with recourse to assets in the event of default. .

    ….The primary market for southern bank [Italy, Spain, Portugal] bonds is in effect closed. ”

    Exactly where is there a shred of evidence that “demand for money-capital is outstripping the supply”? Banks are not issuing new debt in Europe. The loan ‘book’ of European banks is hardly growing. So where is the evidence??

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: