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 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.

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.

Wages of the Top 1% Still Growing at the Expense of Others

Who the economies of the world were rigged to benefit most. The latest data confirms the trend of the upwards redistribution of income often seen over the last several decades.

The world’s largest economies have grown at a steady pace and unemployment has consistently fallen in the years following the greed-driven global financial crisis of 2008, but income gains during the so-called recovery have been enjoyed almost exclusively by the top one percent while most workers experience “unprecedented wage stagnation.”

That’s according to the OECD’s 2018 Employment Outlook (pdf) published Wednesday, which examines recent economic trends and finds that wage growth for most citizens in the 35 industrialized nations studied is “missing in action” due to a number of factors, including the the rapid rise of temporary low-wage jobs and the relentless corporate assault on unions.

[…]

In a statement on Tuesday, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría said “[t]his trend of wageless growth in the face of a rise in employment highlights the structural changes in our economies that the global crisis has deepened, and it underlines the urgent need for countries to help workers.”

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The Bernie Sanders Media Network is Doing Well

An encouraging sign that issues of real importance are gaining more attention, especially considering the outsized influence corporate mass media still has in promoting nonsensical trivialities.

The Vermont senator, who’s been comparing corporate television programming to drugs and accusing it of creating a “nation of morons” since at least 1979 — and musing to friends about creating an alternative news outlet for at least as long — has spent the last year and a half building something close to a small network out of his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

He understands, but resents, the comparison to the man who’s described the news media as the “enemy of the people.” His take is different, and he has his own plans. “[Am I concerned] that people might see me and Trump saying the same thing? Yes, I am,” Sanders conceded, leaning back in a leather chair in a conference room in his office on a recent Tuesday, as footage of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony one building over played on TVs throughout his office. Wearing his standard uniform — long tie, jacket in need of a few swipes with a lint roller — he launched into the critique now familiar to anyone who’s watched one of his rallies. “My point of view is a very, very different one. My point of view is the corporate media, by definition, is owned by large multinational corporations: their bottom line is to make as much money as they can. They are part of the Establishment. There are issues, there are conflicts of interest in terms of fossil fuel advertising — how they have been very, very weak, in terms of climate change.” Needless to say, the content he produces is not sponsored by advertisers.

Sanders hosts an interview show (“The Bernie Sanders Show”) that he started streaming over Facebook Live on a semi-regular basis after his staff got the idea in February of 2017 to film the senator chatting with the activist Rev. Dr. William Barber. After they posted that simple clip and it earned hundreds of thousands of views with no promotion, they experimented with more seriously producing Sanders’s conversation days later with Bill Nye.

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Things escalated. Audio recordings of his conversations, repackaged as a podcast, have since occasionally reached near the top of iTunes’ list of popular programs. Sanders’s press staff — three aides, including Armand Aviram, a former producer at NowThis News, and three paid interns — published 550 original short, policy-focused videos on Facebook and Twitter in 2017 alone. And, this year, he has begun experimenting with streaming town-hall-style programs on Facebook. Each of those live events has outdrawn CNN on the night it aired.

“The idea that we can do a town meeting which would get a significantly larger viewing audience than CNN at that time is something I would not have dreamed of in a million years, a few years ago,” Sanders says.

[…]

“Because people turn on the television, and they’re working longer hours for lower wages, they don’t have health care, their kids can’t afford to go to college, and they’re watching TV: ‘Hey! What about me? You know, I don’t care that Trump fired somebody else today, what about my life or my kids’ lives?’ So what we do, is we look at media in a different sense, we try to figure out what are the issues that impact ordinary people, and how can we provide information to them?”

Patents and Copyrights as Plutocratic Tariffs That are Relics of the Medieval Guild System

A useful analysis rarely seen in the debate.

Many pundits have attacked Trump’s focus on steel and manufacturing because they argue, we should be more concerned about protecting US corporations’ patents and copyrights overseas. This doesn’t make sense.

At the most basic level, stronger and longer patent and copyright protection means that people in other countries have to pay more money. These government-granted monopolies often allow companies to raise the price of the protected items by a factor of 10 or even a 100. In this way, they are equivalent to tariffs of several thousand percent.

Just to be clear, this is not a point that can be honestly disputed by economists. If a government barrier raises the price of a good, it doesn’t matter whether we call that barrier a “tariff” or a “patent,” the impact on the market is the same.

This means if Pfizer’s patent protection on a drug allows it to raise the price it charges for a drug in China or some other developing country by a factor of 10 over the free market price, it is equivalent to imposing a tariff of 1000 percent on the drug. The difference is that instead of the tariff revenue going to the government, it goes back to Pfizer as higher profits.

It’s obvious that higher profits for Pfizer are good for its shareholders and top executives, but why should the rest of us be happy about people in developing countries paying more money to Pfizer for its drugs? Many of us care more about poor people being able to get drugs than Pfizer’s profits.

The story gets even worse. The more money that Pfizer and other US companies collect overseas for their patents and copyrights, the less these people have to spend on other goods and services. In effect, because Pfizer can charge more for its drugs, people in China and other countries have less money to spend on US-made cars and planes. How is this good for most of the people in the United States?

The pushers of stronger and longer patent and copyright protection will undoubtedly claim that higher profits will provide more incentive for research and creative work. This is true, but what are the numbers? If Pfizer gets another $1 billion in profit will they invest one percent of it in research?

That would be an increase, but that means the world would be spending $1 billion in higher drug prices to get an additional $10 million in research. That’s not a very good deal. And, even this research could be largely wasted on developing copycat drugs that are intended to gain a portion of a competitor’s patent earnings by duplicating a successful drug. Again, that could be good for Pfizer, but it is not especially helpful for the rest of us who want to see research focused on developing treatments for conditions where there is not already an effective drug.

To be clear, we do need a mechanism for financing research and creative work, but there is little reason to believe that patent and copyright monopolies are the most effective tool. These are relics of the Medieval guild system. We can do better in the 21st century.

Analysis Finds Only 6% of Corporate Tax Cut Gains Spent on Workers

Tax cuts for the large corporations who wrote the Republican tax scam legislation haven’t even lead to any increase in investment. In January, orders for non-defense capital goods actually fell by about 1.5 percent, and since orders take little time to initiate, they should have increased if the tax cuts were to spur investment. The reality of what a scam this whole ordeal was must be remembered for fighting off the same problem in the future.

While many corporations immediately launched aggressive PR campaigns crediting the tax plan Trump signed in December with new “investments” in employees, a study by the nonprofit group JUST Capital published on Wednesday found that the sensational headlines touting worker bonuses obscured the fact that the vast majority of the law’s benefits have gone straight to the pockets of wealthy shareholders.

“Post-tax cut raises, bonuses, and other worker investments announced by 90 of the largest publicly-traded corporations average just six percent of the total windfall these companies have received from the biggest tax cut in U.S. history,” the group found.

The analysis also showed that 56 percent of these worker investments came in the form of one-time bonuses, not permanent pay raises.

Additionally, the vast majority of companies examined invested none of their windfall into new jobs, while just a few companies said they invested a large percentage—making it appear that all of the companies invested more in jobs than they actually did.

Bolstering JUST Capital’s study was a New York Times analysis published on Monday, which found that rather than investing their tax windfalls, companies are using the extra cash to buy their own shares—a practice that further enriches already wealthy executives and investors but does little to nothing for workers or the overall economy.

“American companies have announced more than $178 billion in planned buybacks—the largest amount unveiled in a single quarter, according to Birinyi Associates, a market research firm,” notes Matt Phillips of the Times.

That amount dwarfs the relatively small gains workers are seeing from the tax law.

As the economists Rick Wartzman and William Lazonick noted in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, the “nation’s workers are getting woefully little, at least relatively speaking.”

“Peeking beyond the PR, our analysis finds that major corporations are planning to spend more than 30 times what they are putting in the wallets of employees on buying back their own stock,” Wartzman and Lazonick concluded.

Report Finds Significant Benefits to Canceling All Student Loan Debt

Canceling student debt is a proposal worth supporting, and it isn’t even radical when it’s considered that the student debt shouldn’t have been allowed to accrue anywhere near the depraved level of $1.4 trillion. It’s also not radical when it’s considered that there is enormous U.S. welfare granted to the rich and to major corporations, much more welfare than the amount that goes to poor and middle-income people.

report from a group of economists at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College finds that there would be huge benefits if the federal government were to forgive all existing student debt. This would ripple out from young people struggling to pay off massive college loans to the economy as a whole, according to the report.

“The idea of canceling student debt is not just some crazy idea out of left field, but is actually something that could be done, and done in a way that has a moderately positive economic impact,” Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow and research director at the Roosevelt Institute and a coauthor of the report said in an interview.

“The way this and similar polices are often discussed is in a mode of ‘well can we really afford this?’ and the answer is definitely yes,” he added.

The report finds that canceling all student debt would likely lead to an increase in U.S. GDP between $861 billion and $1,083 billion over the course of 10 years. It would also lead to an increase of 1.18 to 1.55 million additional new jobs over the same period — that’s about 50% to 70% more jobs per year compared to an average of recent years.

This new analysis comes at a time when more than 44 million American have a collective $1.3 trillion in student debt — higher than both auto U.S. debt and credit card debt.

[…]

The report also finds that total loan forgiveness would cost the U.S. government approximately $1.4 trillion over the course of 10 years — a number that is almost exactly the same as what the CBO recently projected the Republican’s new tax bill would cost.

But researchers said that the positive impacts of canceling student debt would likely be more broadly felt than those of the tax bill.

“[The GOP tax bill] is going to add 1.5 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years,” Stephanie Kelton, Stony Brook University professor of public policy and economics, said in an interview. Kelton is one of the authors of the report, and recently worked as the chief economists for the Democratic minority on the Senate budget committee.

“What else could we do? Canceling student loan debt was just about perfect because it comes in at about 1.4 trillion and it’s almost six of one, half a dozen of the other in terms of the price tag,” she said.

Kelton emphasized that U.S. government shouldn’t be thinking of how it can spend money to help Americans as a zero sum game. But at the same time, if lawmakers can spend money to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, it can also afford to spend nearly the same amount to cancel student debt and grow the economy simultaneously.

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.