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.