For the moment, the Fed remains leading the charge to hold interest rates low, based on what I would say is a faulty premise that the US economy just needs more expensive homes and homeowner tax income to get out of the hole it finds itself in.
The primary advantages of low interest rates are:
1) Cheap borrowing/refinancing, taking pressure off consumers
2) Allegedly easier to acquire homes, raising tax receipts (except for banking restrictions on lending)
3) Increased home sales enable retirees to downsize without collapsing pricing/bankrupting themselves
4) Support prices of goods and services, avoiding debt spiral
Each of these virtues, however, comes at the assumption that the consumer had the leeway to borrow more, and would take the pause to put themselves on solid footing, paying down debt and restructuring. Cheap credit was (and is always) supposed to be a momentary stepping stone to a better tomorrow.
In reality, it always becomes a game a chicken.
Consumers haven’t repaired their savings accounts at all. Debt levels should be something like three quarters of what they are – we’ve had near zero interest rates for five years and banks have so many programs running to help consumers pay off loans, it’s ridiculous. But it hasn’t happened. Consumer finances remain horrible, the money has largely been spent in ways that haven’t strategically benefited the recipients, and the low interest rates have seeded a newer, more dangerous problem.
The nation’s retirement system is on the rocks.
Looking at the state of public pensions and private 401k’s, the baby boomer’s retirement is in peril. Misallocations into housing and malinvestment have taken their toll. This isn’t exactly breaking news.
However, heretofore the assumption has been that the Fed’s knee jerk reaction to keep rates low was the only pathway and that there would be no push to counter this until unemployment levels and economic prosperity returned.
I would suggest that within the next few years, as baby boomer retirement heats up and the ability to create a virtuous cycle built on higher home prices and cheap credit slips away, the pressure on the Fed to maintain low rates will actually begin to cave to a growing murmur from the crowd demanding higher rates to maintain retirement obligations.
While this move will be a death knell for economic growth, from the point of view of aging boomers (the reigning political powerhouse and largest voting segment) economic growth would be a hollow victory as their own retirement obligations come under pressure and we increasingly see benefit cuts, such as are being witnessed in Detroit or California. Maintaining the status quo at the expense of economic growth puts them ahead, as they have a larger share of current goods and services, whereas permitting growth would ultimately lead them personally to greater poverty.
High interest rates takes pressure off of pension systems, and enables savings accounts to grow rapidly (such as those of boomers who have taken the final steps of downsizing homesteads and transferred much of their wealth into fixed income investments). It also improves quality of life for those savers by putting pressure on pricing.
Within three to five years, I expect interest rates get pushed up above 6% annually, for the purpose of refinancing retirement accounts for the benefit of boomers, at the expense of the rest of the country (planet?). When this occurs, I don’t think it will be because the Fed has lost control of the bond market. I actually believe it will be done intentionally, driven from political expediency.