The Interest Rate Curve

August 4, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I was doing some work on various 1930s Depression era programs and ran across this precursor to Social Security call the Townsend Old-Age Revolving Pension. You can read more about it at the Social Security website in the notes below (Note #1).

The idea was to give people 60 years and older $200 a month. Pretty cool, I thought. Then I checked the BLS inflation calculator and found out that $200 at that time was equivalent to $3900 a month! That’s almost 2-1/2 times the average $1,461 a month that current Social Security recipients receive. The program was to be funded by a 2% national sales tax somewhat like the VAT tax in Europe. Seniors loved the program. They would be receiving twice what an average working person received each month.

A bill was introduced in Congress to adopt this plan; when the proponents of the program appeared at a Congressional hearing, it became apparent that they had not done any research on the amount of taxes needed to fund the program – more than half of the entire federal budget. The idea was shelved but inspired the creation of the Social Security program a few years later.

A unique feature of the plan was that recipients had to spend the money every month or lose whatever they did not spend. As the economy slowed down in early 2008, the Bush Administration sent out tax rebates to everyone in the hopes that the increased spending would stimulate the economy. A 2008 consumer confidence survey indicated that only a third of people spent the rebate (Note #2), but a 2009 Congressional Budget Office analysis indicated a higher percentage (Note #3).

In Obama’s first months in office after the 2008 Financial Crisis, the issue was a hot topic among policymakers and economists. The government could send out another round of rebate checks to people, but it couldn’t make them spend it to stimulate the economy. The Fed had cut interest rates to near 0%. What else could it do?

In an April 2009 NY Times op-ed, the prominent economist Greg Mankiw discussed a proposal that one of his students offered (Note #4). Essentially, the scheme was to announce a lottery that would invalidate 10% of all money. The nominal cost of holding money would go from 0% to -10%. By nominal, I mean excluding inflation which was zero or negative in early 2009. In advance of the lottery, people would want to hold as little money as possible. Would they spend it, or deposit it in the bank?  In today’s digital economy, most of us do not hold as much money as we did several decades ago. Would such a scheme encourage people to spend more?

I remember reading a suggestion at the time that the government should send credit cards to taxpayers instead of checks. The thinking was that people would have to spend the rebate instead of being saved or paying off debt. However, money is fungible, or interchangeable. After receiving my credit card loaded with $600, for example, I could pay my utilities or rent with that and put $600 in my savings account. I have spent nothing extra, which is what the government wants me to do.

If government can’t force people to spend money, then the government must spend the money directly to stimulate the economy during a downturn. But that leaves it to Congress to decide what to spend the money on and that is a long and difficult process of debate and competition for political and economic power.

It has been more than ten years since the financial crisis. That’s ten years of some very smart and experienced people trying to think of solutions to the next crisis, whenever it comes. No one has been able to come up with a workable solution. I think that’s why the Fed announced a small decrease in the prevailing interest rate this week. In the face of some weaker manufacturing data in this country and around the world, they are trying to steer the economy away from any rocky shore. 

Have policymakers unwittingly crafted a financial world that can no longer cope with the normal downs in a business cycle? There are imbalances that build up during an expansion. A downturn is a correcting mechanism. After ten years, the Fed hasn’t been able to raise rates to a normal 3-4%. Because developed countries around the world have large debts that they must service, central banks are pressured to keep interest rates low.  The low rates entice companies to borrow money to buy back their own stock to make their future earnings more attractive to equity buyers. The low rates fuel robust credit growth among consumers who feel more confident in the future as stock prices continue to rise. The money spent spurs more growth. Eventually, the growth rate of employment and house prices and credit slows to zero. Then comes the downhill part. I think the Fed knows that the brakes on this economy are not working very well and are taking us down a road where the downhill might be more gradual. I hope.

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Notes:

  1. The Townsend Old-Age Pension program
  2. A preliminary analysis 2008 tax rebate
  3. A CBO analysis of the 2008 tax rebate
  4. Greg Mankiw’s NY Times op-ed “It May Be Time for the Fed to Go Negative.”

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