For years we have been warned by Keynesian economists to fear the so-called “liquidity trap,” an economic cul-de-sac that can suck down an economy like a tar pit swallowing a mastodon. They argue that economies grow because banks lend and consumers spend. But a “liquidity trap,” they argue, convinces consumers not to consume and businesses not to borrow. The resulting combination of slack demand and falling prices creates a pernicious cycle that cannot be overcome by the ordinary forces that create growth, like savings or investment. They say that a liquidity trap can even resist the extraordinary force of monetary stimulus by rendering cash injections into useless “string pushing.” Some of these economists suggest that its power can only be countered by a world war or other fortunately timed event that leads to otherwise politically unattainable levels of government spending.
Putting aside the dubious proposition that the human desire to strive and succeed can be permanently short-circuited by an economic contraction, and that modest expected price declines can quell our desire to consume, the Keynesians have overlooked a much more dangerous and demonstrable pitfall of their own creation: something that I call “The Stimulus Trap.” This condition occurs when an economy becomes addicted to the monetary stimulus provided by a central bank, and as a result fails to restructure itself in a manner that will allow for robust, and sustainable, growth. The trap redirects capital into non-productive sectors and starves those areas of the economy that could lead an economic rebirth. The condition is characterized by anemic growth and deteriorating underlying economic fundamentals which is often masked by inflation or asset price bubbles (I look at how stimulus has impacted the U.S. stock market in the March edition of my newsletter).
Japan has been caught in such a stimulus trap for more than a decade. Following a stock and housing market boom of unsustainable proportions in the 1980s, the Japanese economy spectacularly imploded in 1991. The crash initiated a “lost decade” of de-leveraging and contraction. But beginning in 2001, the Bank of Japan unveiled a series of unconventional policies that it describes as “quantitative easing,” which involved pushing interest rates to zero, flooding commercial banks with excess liquidity, and buying unprecedented quantities of government bonds, asset-backed securities, and corporate debt. Although Japan has been technically in recovery ever since, its performance is but a shadow of the roaring growth that typified the 40 years prior to 1991. Recently, conditions in Japan have deteriorated further and the underlying imbalances have gotten progressively worse. Yet despite this, the new government is set to double down on the failed policies of the last decade.
I believe that the United States is now following Japan into the mire. After the crash of 2008, we implemented nearly the same set of policies as did Japan in 2001. In the past two years, despite the surging stock market and apparently declining unemployment rate, the size and scope of these efforts have increased. But as is the case in Japan, we can clearly witness how the stimulus has perpetuated stagnation. (See my analysis of the new plans of the Japanese government).
In 2008, one of the country’s biggest problems was that we had over-leveraged too many non-productive sectors of the economy. For instance, we irresponsibly lent far too much money to people to buy over-priced real estate. Since then, the problem has gotten worse. Currently the process of writing, securitizing, and buying home mortgages has been essentially nationalized. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which are now officially government agencies) write and package the vast majority of new home mortgages, which are then guaranteed (almost exclusively) through the Federal Housing Administration, and then sold to the Federal Reserve. According to a tally by ProPublica, these government entities bought or insured more than nine out of 10 home mortgages originated last year, a $1.3 trillion business. Compare this to 2006, when the government share was only three in 10. As a result of this, our lending is far more irresponsible than it has ever been.
In the fourth quarter of 2012, 44% of all FHA borrowers either had no credit score or a score of 679 or lower. In addition, the overwhelming majority of FHA guaranteed loans are being made at 95% or greater loan-to-value. This means down payments are an afterthought. Under the FHA’s Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), loans are now even extended to underwater borrowers whose mortgages may be worth far more than their homes. As a result, the FHA could be exposed to enormous losses in the event of future housing market downturns. Such an outcome would be likely if mortgage interest rates were ever to rise even modestly from their current low levels.
In fact, losses on low-quality mortgages have already left the FHA with $16 billion in losses. To close the gap, it has had to raise the insurance premiums it charges to borrowers. With those premiums expected to rise again next month, many fear that marginal borrowers could be priced out of the market. But rather than learning from its mistakes, the government just announced that Fannie Mae would pick up the slack, lowering its lending standards to match the ones that had led to losses at the FHA. In other words, we haven’t solved the problem of bad lending – we have simply made it bigger and nationalized it.
The overall financial sector is equally addicted to cheap money. Banks have seen strong earnings and rising share prices in recent years. But their businesses have largely focused on the simple process of capturing the spread between the zero percent cost of Fed capital and the 3% yield of long term Treasury debt and government insured mortgage backed securities. As a result, banks are not making productive private sector loans to businesses. Instead, the capital is being used to pump up the already bloated housing and government sectors.
Corporate profits are indeed high at the moment, but much of that success comes from the extremely low borrowing costs and extremely high leverage. Investors chasing any kind of yield they can find are pouring money into companies with dubious prospects. This January, yields on junk rated debt fell below 6% for the first time. Currently they are approaching 5.5%. Consumers are using cheap money to buy on credit. Savings rates are now hitting post-recession lows.
Lastly (but certainly not least), the Federal government is now totally dependent on the Fed’s largess. Without the Fed buying the bulk of Treasury debt, interest rates would likely rise, thereby increasing the cost of servicing the massive national debt. While Congress and the media have focused on the $85 billion in annual cuts earmarked in the “Sequester,” an increase of Treasury yields to 5% (3% higher than current levels) on the $16 trillion in outstanding government debt would translate to $480 billion per year of increased interest payments. Such an increase would force a tough choice between raising taxes, cutting domestic spending or reducing interest payments sent abroad for debt service. If foreign creditors begin to doubt that America has the resolve to make the hard choices, they may refuse to roll-over maturing obligations, forcing the government to actually repay principal. With trillions maturing each year, actual repayment is mathematically impossible.
But for now most people feel that the transition is underway to a healthy economy. The prevailing debate is when and how the Fed will let the economy fly on its own. Many of the top market analysts have great faith that Ben Bernanke can pull the monetary tablecloth off the table without disturbing the dishes. Those who hold this view fail to understand that the United States is caught in a stimulus trap from which there is no easy exit. How can the Fed wean the economy from stimulus when stimulus IS the economy? In truth, the trick Bernanke must actually perform is to pull the table out from beneath the cloth, leaving both the cloth and the dishes suspended in air. (Read how Iceland confronted its own crisis while avoiding the stimulus trap).
What would happen to the Treasury market if the Federal Reserve, by far the biggest buyer and largest holder of Treasury bonds, became a net seller? Who will be there to keep the sell off from becoming an interest rate spiking rout? It may sound absurd to those of us who remember the economy before the crash, but our new economy can’t tolerate “sky high” rates of four or five percent. What would happen to the housing market and the stock market if interest rates were to return to those traditional levels? The red ink would flow in rivers. With yields rising and asset prices falling, how long would it take before the Fed reverses course and serves up another round of stimulus? Not long at all.
That means any talk of an exit strategy is just that, talk. Not only can the Fed not exit, but it will have to delve further into the stimulus abyss. While doing so, the Fed will continuously insist that the exit lies just behind an ever moving horizon. It will repeat this mantra until a currency crisis finally forces a painful exit.
Unfortunately, the longer the Fed waits to exit, the more painful the exit will be. But trading long-term pain for short-term gain is the Fed’s specialty. In the meantime, Wall Street watches in uncomprehending stupor as the economy settles deeper and deeper into the stimulus trap.