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Money manager turned country crooner Merle Hazard has made a name for himself singing about fiscal policy. His latest tune considers whether the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates -- and according to one of the world’s leading investment experts, it’s brilliant, especially since the nation’s economic future hinges on the central bank’s decision. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
In a global atmosphere of slow economic growth and very low interest rates, including the European Central Bank today, which dropped its key rate to zero, and others in recent weeks having gone even lower, dipping into negative territory, some economists and financial analysts have begun to ask if the trend has gone too far, lasted too long, and done too little good.
Paul Solman tracked one of those analysts down, as well as a little down-home music with an economics bent.
It's all part of his weekly series, Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the "NewsHour."
MERLE HAZARD, Money Manager/Musician:
From country crooner Merle Hazard, an homage to the old TV show "Hee Haw."
Hey, Alison, when do you think interest rates are going up again?
ALISON BROWN, Musician:
Well, that's a question you're going to have to ask Yellen.
She means Janet Yellen, of course, chair of the Federal Reserve, which meets next week on a question that grips markets, businesses, consumers, even governments, or as Hazard, a Nashville money manager in real life, with the help of Grammy winners Alison Brown and Tammy Rogers King, puts it:
MERLE HAZARD (singing):
How long how long will interest rates stay low? That's the question. The whole world wants to know, how long, how long will interest rates stay low? It seems like, if they're going up, they're going pretty slow.
And so next week's policy question: Will the Fed hike interest rates even just a smidgen, as it did in December, or leave them alone?
If you could predict it, you could make a lot of dough.
Now, if Merle's musical approach strikes you as a tad cornpone, be advised that one of the world's great experts on interest rates, Mohamed El-Erian, dubbed it both brilliant and timely.
Look, says El-Erian:
MOHAMED EL-ERIAN, Author, "The Only Game in Town": We are on a road right now that has been characterized by two things, enormous central bank intervention, not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to, and, secondly, low, but stable growth. And that road is coming to an end.
Our country's Central Bank is really scared, that's plain to see. When everything is leveraged, raising rates is misery, but keeping rates too low too long would cause us pain and sorrow. There is no easy option in a land of constant borrow.
The Fed, America's Central Bank, has kept interest rates rock-bottom low, by buying up Treasury bonds, mortgage bonds, all sorts of IOUs. The low rates were meant to induce spending and investment.
Mortgage rates are among the lowest they have been in generations.
And, yes, economic growth has been steady ever since the great recession receded. Steady, but slow.
We have been in a period where growth has been very sluggish, the so-called new normal, where we don't bounce back. We end up below potential consistently.
El-Erian popularized the term the new normal while helping run PIMCO, the world's largest bond investor. But his new book, "The Only Game in Town," argues that the new normal may be coming to a bitter end.
How long will central banks continue to experiment? Because, at some point, when you experiment too much, the collateral damage and the unintended consequences exceed the benefits.
The experiment of near-zero interest rates, that is, which might have induced not just investments, but risky investments, with cheap borrowed money, which could lead to market bubbles that then begin to burst.
Like, for example, we all wake up and we find that the stock market is down 10 percent.
Or it's down 20 percent, or it's down 30 percent.
And then we become more cautious, and we drag the economy down, not just low growth, recession.
And that's why they have raised interest rates even a little bit?
Absolutely. And that's why they haven't rushed in earlier in the year, when we had financial volatility, to calm everything down immediately. In the past, they always used to rush in with nice, calming statements, saying, don't worry, I have got your back. We are your BFF, markets. We are your best friends forever. They haven't done this, this time.
Just the opposite. Janet Yellen has actually said, although she wasn't yelling, but — but pretty loud for a central banker, actually, in saying, hey, there are risks everywhere.
Absolutely. And she went to Congress and said, you know what? You have to help us.
JANET YELLEN, Federal Reserve Chair:
Some of the burden should also be on Congress.
We can't do it on our own.
By help, El-Erian means government spending on, say, infrastructure, as he has pressed President Obama to do in America, to stimulate slow-growing economies, or, as Merle Hazard puts it:
Central banks around the world, not only in the states, are each at work on lengthy slumps, their countries' tragic fates. Legislatures will not spend to give sufficient boost. Lower interest rates are all that's left to get their countries juiced.
The big tragedy is that we have pushed central banks to be the only game in town.
The name of his book and central thesis about central banks.
Up to the financial crisis, they got blamed for being asleep at the wheel, too little regulation, too little supervision, you allowed banks to take irresponsible risks.
But that was a fair charge, though.
It was a fair charge. Then they stepped in and saved us. They averted a multi-year depression that would have not only harmed this generation, but future generations.
But, by 2010, the new normal had begun to establish itself, time, says El-Erian, for the Fed to stop goosing the economy and hand off economic policy to the politicians.
This was no longer about averting a depression, no longer about normalizing financial markets. And the politicians were paralyzed by political dysfunction.
The bill is not passed.
Gridlock and thus, El-Erian thinks, insufficient spending and investment.
Recovery has been long and slow. The crisis wounds are deep.
And that's where we are today.
So, until we see inflation, money's likely to be cheap.
And this is also why central bankers and economists root for something that was long anathema, that is, inflation, because that would be an indication that people are spending and investing.
And they hope that that inflation is good inflation, in a sense that it's driven by higher wages, because, when you get inflation from higher wages, you also get higher consumption, higher demand.
But I'm old enough to remember when what we were worried about was wage price inflation. Wages would go up, and then prices would go up, and it would spiral out of control.
Yes. I'm old enough to remember those days. I'm old enough to remember when banks wanted your deposits.
I'm old enough to remember things that were conventional wisdom, and that today have been replaced by improbables. And that speaks to why the road we're on is coming to an end. The system is signaling day in and day out it cannot continue like this.
And that's why the Fed is in such a quandary these days, causing Merle Hazard, among many others, to ask:
How long until we really start to grow? Interest rates are going up, but they're going pretty slow.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.
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