Thursday, 25 June 2015

Interest Rates – low but not low enough

Interest rates may not be low enough to get us on the road to recovery but falling prices should help

Something strange is afoot in the economy.  With interest rates at record lows in many countries, borrowing should be booming and saving on the decline but the opposite is true.  This suggests that the economy remains out of kilter without interest rates being able to set the right balance between savings and investment.  Instead, the shortfall in demand due to limited investment and weak spending may be dragging down prices as a means to put the economy back to health.  

Not so free market

The self-healing ability of any economy is one of the central tenants of economic theory.  Prices adjust as a means for the economy adapting to any changes.  For example, an increase in the supply of bananas will trigger a fall in prices and more people eating bananas.  A rise in companies looking for software experts would drive up their wages (the price for labour) and the number of people wanting to learn more about computers.  Through changes in these prices, the economy moves toward an equilibrium where everything is at appropriate levels.

Interest rates act in the same way acting as the “price of money” to make sure that there is neither too much nor too little savings or investment.  Lower interest rates are used to make borrowing cheaper and savings less worthwhile.  This was the course of action taken by central banks in order to stimulate the economy by attempting to boost investment (funded by lending) and spur on more consumption (due to lower savings).  Quantitative easing adds to this by giving banks more money to lend and less need to entice people to leave money in the bank.

Still waiting

The continued wait for a robust recovery suggests that something remains amiss.  The lack of appetite among companies to expand their operations by borrowing is both a cause of and caused by weak demand in the overall economy.  Spending by consumers is also faltering with people happy to let money mount up in the bank despite the low returns on savings.  The high levels of household debt that still persist are another reason for consumers to hold back from spending.

The persistence of the state of low investment and high savings suggests that monetary policy has not been enough to get the economy back on the right track (although it has helped to prevent a financial collapse).  A further loosening of monetary policy is not on the books for most central banks.  Interest rates cannot be lowered much further considering that negative interest rates are difficult to implement.  Quantitative easing also seems to have run its course while increasing creating negative side effects

Where to next?

The inability of interest rates to adjust is hampering a return to economic growth.  With interest rates not able to go any lower, it may be the case that it is prices which are instead moving to get the economy back to equilibrium.  That is, rather than interest rates falling to balance out weak lending and growing savings, prices are being depressed by the lacklustre economy.  The hopes for economic recovery rely on cheaper prices spurring on more spending thanks to consumers felling richer.  Further impetus would result from the extra spending helping to push up investment and lift the economy to better match the current level of interest rates.

This route back to recovery may take time considering that any decline in prices will be limited and wage gains have yet to take off.  There are ways to push this along of which easiest way would be for governments to temporarily increase spending.  Money used for investments in infrastructure or training and R&D in new technologies would be worthwhile at a time of low interest rates.  Another alternative would be for central banks to use their money-printing capabilities to transfer cash to consumers.  This more radical option would provide a short-term boost to spending.  Sometimes we all need a little bit extra to get us back on track and the economy is no different.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Property Market – nowhere to call home

House prices are distorted by demand from investors and governments are making the situation worse

Houses have become so much more than homes and many of us are missing out as a result.  More than just a place to live, houses have become the investment option of choice during turbulent times.  The popularity of investment properties means that buyers looking for a home are being crowded out of the market.  Rather than correcting this distortion, government policies typically make things worse and leave the dream of their own home beyond the hopes of many.

No home sweet home

The property market is never far from any topic of conversation.  Since everybody needs a place to live, it affects us all.  The substantial price tag that comes with buying a house would be enough to weigh on anyone’s mind.  But property purchases take on even greater significance as real estate also counts as a form of saving for the future.  The money tied up in property is the biggest investment that many of us make.  This means that the ups and downs of the housing market shape the financial well-being of many families. 

The predominance of property investment is further accentuated as buy-to-lets become increasingly popular as a means of putting ones wealth to work.  The abstract nature of shares and bonds along with the shenanigans in the financial markets makes property seem like the safe-as-houses option.  Yet this extra source of demand for real estate inflates house prices beyond their value as a mere place to live.  Investment in real estate brings benefits, such as providing rental accommodation and improvements to neglected properties, but the costs also mount as investment in property increases.

With a relatively fixed amount of housing in large cities, one person’s buy-to-let gets in the way of a house becoming a permanent home.  Along with the benefits to home owners, neighbourhoods also have a greater sense of community with stable residents.  The higher house prices due to property investment results in home ownership being coupled with a larger amount of mortgage debt.  This makes the property ladder more tenuous for debt-laden buyers who could easily be caught out by any economic hardship.

Need to make room for more

Governments, which could work to limit these negative consequences, tend to only exacerbate the problem.  Policies targeting the real estate market differ across countries – tax breaks for mortgage debt, low levels of capital gains tax, easier access to loans.  But the common thread is that it is all too tempting for governments to please better off voters by bolstering the property market.  The predominance of monetary policy as the main tool for managing the economy makes this even worse by stoking up borrowing (and the property market) when the economy is weak. 

While pushing up demand, governments do too little to boost supply.  It is more housing that is often cited by politicians as the solution to buoyant property prices but government regulations and zoning rules are not reflective of the growing need for new houses.  Houses take too long to build while elections are never far off even though more building would make for good economic policy at a time when the economy is still suffering from a shortfall in demand.

Financial markets are awash with other places to invest.  Our animal spirits should be limited to parts of the economy where the ups and downs can be absorbed without wider consequences for the rest of us.  Housing is too important to get caught up in such investment games.