Why the Fed Raising Interest Rates Matters

The Federal Reserve is the central bank of the United States. There are many valid criticisms of it as an institution, but it can act as a valuable force for the public interest if used properly.

As is the standard of central banks, the Fed has a powerful tool that allows it to have a major impact on short-term interest rates. Interest rates are basically bread and butter to the number of people who have jobs in the economy.

Raising interest rates has the effect of slowing the economy and keeping people — potentially millions of them, as shown in recent years — from finding jobs. Higher interest rates naturally mean less loans to businesses and organizations that could use them to hire more workers. The standard argument for raising interest rates though is to control inflation, as higher interest rates reduce pressure in the labor market, which then leads to workers having less bargaining power for pay increases.

The problem with the argument to control inflation is that inflation has already been quite low in past years, well below the Federal Reserve’s 2.0 percent annual target. The 2.0 percent target is supposed to be an average, and considering recent years, it hasn’t even been near that target. The Federal Reserve was set up with the dual mandate of both adequately controlling prices and maintaining what’s known as full employment. Full employment basically means a strong labor market with low unemployment, where workers can have good access to jobs with fair wages, and it’s quite important as a policy measure. (Due to slow wage growth among most, the U.S. economy clearly isn’t at full employment now, contrary to what you’d likely read in the newspapers.)

If unemployment is low, it means that there will be an increased demand for labor, which should both mean higher wages for workers and that the economy’s resources are being used decently well. The increased demand for labor raising wages is because employers cannot so easily hire other workers if their employees happen to leave the firm. Without enough employees, the firm risks being losing profitability to its competition and going out of business. This situation would allow an existing employee to say something like “Give me a raise or I will find a job elsewhere,” and it would potentially allow a prospective employee to refuse a job unless the wage is adequate enough.

The increase in worker bargaining power leading to higher wages and then higher inflation is due to firms needing or deciding to raise prices some after seeing that workers generally can pay more. There is nuance needed in this description, and it should be noted that wages for most workers in the U.S. have been mainly stagnant for decades due to the policy-driven upwards redistribution of income to the wealthy, but it’s a standard point. If the policy is actually directed towards the interest of the general public, the increases in prices will be more than offset by the increases in wages, however. There is evidence of this worker-friendly approach doing well in the U.S. from about 1947 to 1973.

It should also be noted that the only times that many American workers have experienced even minor real wage increases in the last four decades have been when there were tighter labor markets. This occurred in the later 1990s and over the past several years, and it points to the immense importance of the Fed keeping interest rates low.

Alan Greenspan was the economist at the head of the Fed in the 1990s, and for whatever reason, he decided against raising interest rates as the unemployment rate got lower. This was at a time when it was standard in the economics profession to claim that the unemployment rate couldn’t go below about 6 percent without leading to rapid inflation. Inflation never got that high in the 1990s though, and even if Greenspan deserves serious criticism for failing to contain the housing bubble that was the main cause of the devastating economic crash and Great Recession, he does deserve praise for doing this one thing to help low- and middle-income workers.

Janet Yellen’s chair appointment at the Fed also saw the institution keeping interest rates quite low for her tenure, which is clearly one of the main reasons that the U.S. economy is doing decently well now in 2018 relative to the last four decades. Driving around America now would allow someone to see many more help wanted signs than in at almost any other time thus far in the 21st century, and there’s an advantage to this that may not be so obvious: Disadvantaged workers (typically those from minority ethnic groups or with disabilities) will have an easier time finding jobs. The increased demand for labor means that there’s less room for discrimination against them. As proof of this, the disabilities application rate and the unemployment rate for African-Americans have fallen to historically low levels.

The unemployment rate does of course have its flaws. It measures workers looking for jobs, not the amount of people who have dropped out of the labor force and are no longer looking for employment. There is plenty of good work that needs to be done, and there are idle hands that want to do it, but the dysfunctional American economy isn’t putting the two together enough. So while the unemployment rate is an important measure, there are other relevant indicators (such as the labor force participation rate among prime-age workers) that should be considered in assessing the economy.

But if the majority of workers benefit most from lower rather than higher interest rates, why does the Fed continue to raise them then? It’s largely because financial institutions exert significant control over the Fed, and their preference is to keep inflation as low as possible. More worker bargaining power via lower interest rates can mean a shift from net corporate profits to wages for workers, and bank loans also stand to depreciate in value with higher inflation.

The after-tax corporate profit share of national income has almost doubled since 2000, and this to a significant extent is because of wages for workers being diverted into corporate profits that are largely pocketed by executives and major shareholders. According to one reputable estimate, if the after-tax corporate profit share was back at its 2000 level, it would translate to nearly $4000 more per U.S. worker in wages, a fact that is undoubtedly quite disturbing.

Since the loans of banks and other financial corporations typically are set at a fixed rate, the repayments of those loans will be worth less to them if inflation rises. For one example, if a bank offered a 5 percent home loan while expecting that inflation would be 1 percent, the bank would assume that it would receive a real interest rate of 4 percent. If the inflation rate actually becomes 2 percent, the bank will take a considerable profit loss (receiving a 3 percent real interest rate) compared to what it expected.

In sum though, the issue of the central bank raising interest rates has historically been one that’s favored powerful financial corporations at the expense of the working class, and it’s a very significant issue that should be kept in mind more.

Further Examination of Federal Reserve Reform Proposals

On MLK day, reform of the Federal Reserve should be noted as important to advancing the policy of what’s referred to as full employment, which MLK was very plausibly a strong advocate for. The link contains proposals for that objective, with particular attention being directed towards the malign effects banking interests currently mechanistically have on the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve System has an unusual status as being a mix of public and private entities. The governors are of course explicitly part of the public sector, as presidential appointees subject to congressional approval. However, the 12 regional banks are private, being owned by the member banks in the district, which have substantial control over the district bank’s conduct.

This structure was put in place more than a century ago to fit the politics and the economy of the time. It is inconceivable that anyone constructing a central bank today would use the same framework. The archaic nature of the Fed’s design is perhaps best demonstrated by the distribution of the regional banks. Two are located in the state of Missouri. Meanwhile, the San Francisco region not only includes the whole state of California, but the rest of the west coast, and the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, in all accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation’s economy.

While there were reasons that a mixed public–private central bank and regulatory system may have made sense at the start of the last century, this is no longer the case today. The United States is the only major economy with this sort of mixed approach. The Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of Japan, and the European Central Bank are all purely public entities. It is recognized that the conduct of monetary policy, along with the lender of last resort and regulatory functions of the central bank, are necessarily responsibilities of the government.

[…]

While there does not seem to be much basis for concerns that the Fed will act to support the political party in power, there is a real concern about a structure that gives the financial industry a direct voice in the conduct of monetary and regulatory policy through their control of the regional banks. This is really an extraordinary structure without any obvious parallels in our governmental system.

Both aspects of this relationship make little obvious sense. The financial industry certainly has useful insights on the conduct of monetary policy, but it makes no more sense to give them seats at the table than the manufacturing or tech industry. Monetary policy has an enormous impact on the national economy and affects every sector in it; there is no reason to believe that the perspectives gained from working in the financial industry are uniquely valuable.

Similarly, the idea that an industry would be able to pick its own regulator is truly extraordinary. It is understandable that industry groups will try to lobby and in other ways influence the decisions of regulatory bodies. The pharmaceutical industry places pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve drugs more quickly, the telecommunications industry lobbies the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for looser standards on universal service, but in neither case are they given a direct role in appointing their regulators. No one would suggest that Pfizer or Merck should be able to appoint a commissioner on the FDA or that Verizon and Comcast should select one of the members of the FCC. The Federal Reserve Board is unique in this way, as the member banks within a district largely have the ability to control the selection of the bank president who plays a direct role in both determining monetary policy and regulation of the banks within the region.[1]

[…]

Inflation has been at relatively steady and low levels for most of the last three decades. In fact, since the Fed officially adopted the 2.0 percent average inflation target in 2012, the core inflation rate has consistently been below this pace. In other words, if we view the 2.0 percent inflation target as a proper goal of monetary policy, the Fed has failed by having too little inflation, not too much.

[…]

This subcommittee is considering a wide range of proposals that would alter the structure of the Fed. Several are quite useful in increasing openness and accountability. However, the ones which aim to give more control of the Fed in the hands of the banking industry, rather than officials appointed through the democratic process seem at odds with recent trends both in the United States and the rest of the world. It is difficult to understand the effort to privatize the conduct of monetary policy and to turn over control of financial regulation to the industry that is being regulated.

 

The Next Fed Chair Might be Horrendously Terrible

The Federal Reserve is a powerful institution, and there’s no disputing that it wields more influence than most government agencies. As Janet Yellen‘s term is set to expire in early 2018, she will either be reappointed or someone will take her place as Fed chair. I am not a big supporter of Yellen, but it’s clear that someone much worse than her would have considerable implications for general economic well-being.

Since the dawn of time men have married into prominent families as a way to improve their career prospects, but as Jared Kushner can attest, the returns to marrying well have never been greater. We may see further proof of this proposition if Donald Trump selects Kevin Warsh to replace Janet Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

Like Kushner, Warsh’s secret to success seems to rest largely on the family he married into. Warsh’s father-in-law is the billionaire Ronald Lauder, the heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune and a major Republican Party donor.

If Warsh were picked his background would provide a sharp contrast to that of Janet Yellen. Yellen developed a reputation as a highly respected academic economist, having taught at both Berkeley and Harvard, and published dozens of articles in top journals. She went to Washington to become a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors under President Clinton and then served as the chair of his Council of Economic Advisers. She then served as president of the San Francisco Fed district bank, before being appointed as vice-chair by President Obama. She was elevated to chair in 2013 after Ben Bernanke completed his second term.

She not only has held top positions, but she has had a good track record in her performance in these positions. Notably, she began to be concerned about the fallout from the collapse of the housing bubble in early 2007.

This was late in the scheme of things (it would have been best to raise the concerns before the bubble had grown to such dangerous levels), but she was still ahead of her colleagues at the Fed. She also has been a consistent supporter of the various Fed policies designed to boost the economy out of the recession, which by almost all accounts have had a positive effect on growth and employment.

By contrast, Warsh is a lawyer, not an economist. He worked at the Morgan Stanley investment bank until 2002, when he went to take a mid-level economics position in the George W. Bush administration. Bush appointed him as a Fed governor in 2006, where he served until 2011. Since then he has been a visiting fellow at Stanford and served on various corporate boards.

In his stint as a Fed governor he managed to get just about everything wrong in the events leading up to the financial crisis and in its aftermath. In a speech given in March of 2007, as the housing bubble was already rapidly deflating and the financial markets were becoming increasingly volatile, Warsh touted the explosion in credit default swaps and other derivative instruments. He argued that these instruments facilitated hedging and diversification, completely missing the problems that would arise in these poorly regulated markets over the next year and a half.

Having managed to overlook the growth of an $8 trillion bubble in the housing market and the dodgy financial engineering that supported it, Warsh sought to undermine Fed efforts to boost the recovery from the Great Recession. As early as October of 2008, when the economy was literally collapsing, Warsh was already expressing skepticism about the ability of fiscal stimulus to provide much support. He even pointed to some labor market data to argue that the economy may not be in that much trouble. (The data he cited reported on labor market conditions before the collapse of Lehman.)

His failure to recognize the severity of the downturn and to take seriously the consequences of mass unemployment continued into 2009. In September of that year, before unemployment had even peaked, Warsh was already worried about the need to reverse the stimulus the Fed had provide to the economy, in order to prevent renewed inflation. He continued to oppose the Fed’s efforts to boost the economy, constantly expressing concerns about inflation, until he resigned his position early in 2011. In one notable instance he denounced the Fed’s quantitative easing policy in a column in the Wall Street Journal just after he had voted for it at a meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee.

Since leaving the Fed, Warsh has continued to criticize the Fed’s efforts to stimulate the economy. While his obsession with inflation has proven to be completely unwarranted — the inflation rate is still below the Fed’s 2 percent target — he has found new reasons to complain about the policy. In a Wall Street Journal column he co-authored two years ago, he bizarrely argued that high stock prices and low interest rates were somehow impeding investment.

While there are considerable grounds for criticizing the Fed’s performance in recent decades, the people who were appointed as chair all had clear credentials that would justify their selection. That is not the case with Kevin Warsh. More importantly, when he has been in a position to weigh in on the key economic policy issues of the time, he has a near-perfect track record of being almost 100 percent wrong. The only obvious thing that Warsh seems to have going for him is that he married into a good family.