Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Damage Caused By the Fed's Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP)

Accounting for various inflation measures, the target and daily effective Fed Funds interest rate has been negative since 2009. The Fed has reiterated this so-called "zero interest rate policy" or ZIRP, indefinitely, and additionally has tied further monetary easing measures via bond and asset purchases not only to inflation, but to unemployment, regardless of the lack of evidence that such monetary measures positively affect growth leading to less unemployment. Rates on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) recently hit a record low yield to maturity of -1.496% on 4-year, 4-month issues, forcing the obvious question: Who would buy these things? Evidently, investors are willing to accept getting paid back less than the principal loan at maturity on the expectation that regular payments tied to the government's understated consumer price index (CPI) inflation measure will make up for the negative yield to maturity over the life of the loan - the auction was relatively strong, with a 2.7 bid-to-cover. The likely outcome is that investors will barely break even or lose money, given that inflation and risk will be running higher than expected or as sold to investors.

Creditors and savers lose money in this ZIRP environment, while debtors gain. That has been the goal of the Fed all along, to manipulate the cost of money so as to provide a bailout to all of those debtors, deleveraging or not. The accepted term for this ruse is appropriate: Financial Repression. What the Fed does not admit to is that this practice has significantly skewed the risk-reward for investors willing to lend money, and has created systemic risks tied to the interest rate markets. Both of these side effects have an impact on private investment, and by extension, real economic growth. On a basic level, investors willing to lend money want to see the level of risk tied to the potential reward, as set by market pricing, not as manipulated by a cartel. If that reward has a manipulated ceiling, or has a higher than expected probability of losses (negative reward) due to interest rate dislocations, defaults or other risks not priced in, then investors will shy away from taking any risk at all: they simply will hoard their capital and not lend. We've seen strong evidence of that in the last 3-4 years, as a result of an accommodative Fed feeding overextended debtors looking for a cushy reprieve from the housing and credit market bubbles the Fed helped to create.

Much talk has been made recently about how and when the Fed will proceed to raise interest rates and unwind its growing balance sheet of Treasury and Agency (MBS) securities, bought to keep interest rates artificially low for government borrowing, public mortgage financing and debtor refinancing. Existentially, there is a threat that interest rates could rise without a Fed change in ZIRP: the interest rate markets could dislocate rates higher to more accurately reflect risks. The danger is that dislocation could be severe and lead to significant losses in bonds and in interest rate sensitive securities and derivatives, including currencies. It has been my conviction that the Fed has not quantified this "Black Swan" event or series of events. The severity is potentially very high given the collaterized nature of Treasury and Agency securities within the global financial system, including the repurchase agreement (repo) markets. Rated securities used as accepted collateral experiencing significant sharp losses will have a systemic effect across the system. Critics answer this existential threat by stating that the Fed could simply flood the system with liquidity (printed money), in the magnitude and durations needed to restore stability. This is a fallacy; as I have pointed out in other essays, the Fed is an endogenous (not exogenous) entity, not unlike a large hedge fund, and the belief that it could perpetually print money to save its "system" is as wrong-headed as believing in perpetual motion machines. Trust is not infinite, and Federal Reserve Notes and Treasurys carry risks tied to trust.

Creditors and savers (investors) held hostage by the financial repression of ZIRP have little wiggle room other than to continue to push for changes in the powers carried by the Federal Reserve. Those powers are sold to all of us as a common good, when in fact it has led to an involuntary wealth redistribution scheme, a tax meant to benefit government and politically recruited debtors, with a leveler outcome of stagnant or negative real growth. At its worst, these powers have throttled systemic risks and will continue to do so, instead of unshackling markets and investors to allow for markets to set price levels and risk-reward curves based on supply and demand, and not on politically-motivated cartel manipulations.