A Lack of Giddyup

May 3, 2015

The first estimate of GDP growth in the January to March quarter was almost flat.  Not a big surprise given the severe winter in the eastern part of the U.S. but an annual rate of just .2% growth was lower than most estimates.  It would be a mistake to attribute all of the slow down to the weather.  Lower gas prices have delayed new drilling projects and idled more costly operations.  Some economists have not fully appreciated the positive influence that shale oil drilling has had on a tepid economic recovery.

Growth has not only slowed. It has shifted lower.  The Shiller P/E ratio, or CAPE, uses a 10 year period as a base.  A common measure of inflation expectations is the 10 year Treasury bond.  Let’s look at the change in real per capita GDP over rolling ten year periods starting in 1970.  Below I’ve graphed the logarithm, or log, of current GDP using the GDP 10 years ago as a base.  We can see a fairly consistent trend over forty years until 2008.

Some economists build models – partial derivatives – in which quantity of output fluctuates as a function of price, or F(p).  The thinking goes that price changes are part of a self-reinforcing mechanism. The problem is that price is a reaction to events, not a cause of them.  Prices distribute the effects of changes in supply, demand, and expectations in an economy or market.

The Fed believes that the economy has too much inventory – of savings, of caution.  Just as any store merchant would do, the Fed has lowered the price of savings, the interest rate, in the hopes that  customers will come in and borrow some of that savings.  Blue light special in Housing, Aisle 3!  The sale has been going on for almost seven years but demand in some sectors, particularly housing, is still very low.   The total of outstanding mortgage debt remains subdued no matter how much the price, or interest rate, is lowered.

Last week I showed a chart of new home sales per 1000 people.  I’ll overlay the thirty year mortgage rate over it.

Higher mortgage rates reduce the demand for new homes.  The exceptionally low rates of the past few years should accelerate the demand for new homes.  Let’s do a quick and dirty adjustment by multiplying new home sales by 1 + the interest rate.  This will have a greater effect on sales when interest rates are higher, helping offset the lowered demand.  The actual amounts are not relevant- it’s the comparison.  This chart shows the exceptionally low demand of the past several years.

The total of loans and leases has been growing about 2% annually on average since the end of 2008, from $7.2 trillion to $8.1 trillion, a total of a little over 12% during the period.  To put that in perspective, that total grew by 75% in the previous 6 year period 2003 through 2008, rocketing up from $4.1 trillion to $7.2 trillion.  Since 1995, our economy has shifted and has been running on borrowed money more than in past decades.  These loan totals don’t include the huge, no strike that, call it prodigious, government borrowing that has propped up GDP growth in the past dozen years.

The Fed finished its April meeting this week and decided to keep the fire sale going. “The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.” Fed statement 

Even if conditions do meet labor market and inflation targets, the Fed wants to make sure they can stay stable at those targets for a few months before taking action on interest rates.  The sale has been going on for so long now that the anxiety over the end of the sale has acted as a counter balancing force to the sale price.  Models of thinking as well as patterns of behavior are habit forming. One of the greatest scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, continued to believe in the principles of alchemy until he died.  Like other central banks, the Fed believes in the alchemy of interest rates, the price of money – that they can turn a leaden economy into gold.

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