Jim Grant: Fed Policy Is a Ph.D. standard of Improvisation
All eyes are on the Federal Reserve, and people are wondering, what will it do next? The messaging coming from the central bankers is that they will need to keep interest rates higher for longer. But is that possible given the economic conditions and all of the debt in the economy?
Investment and economics writer Jim Grant appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to discuss the Fed’s inflation fight and its impact on the economy. He said we ask too much of the central bankers. After all, they are only human.
Grant opened the interview by taking exception to Chicago Federal Reserve President Austan Goolsbee’s assertion that the current federal funds rate is “restrictive.”
His own Financial Conditions Index, produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, shows, oddly enough, that financial conditions, as defined, are looser than average even after this short of zero to 60 in six seconds of rate increases.”
So yes, monetary policy is “tighter,” but it is not yet “tight.”
Grant has said we are likely entering into a generational bear market in bonds. He pointed out that interest rates are unique because they tend to follow generational cycles. That’s been true in the US since the Civil War.
I say we just ended in 2021 40 years, 4-0 years, of persistently declining rates, which ended, and something I think financial historians are going to puzzle over for many many years, which is negative nominal rates — bonds priced to yields less than nothing to the tune of like $15 or $16 trillion. … It seems to me every big move in financial markets, whether its bonds or anything else, tends to climax in some absurdity, some valuation excess with the stock puppet 1999 or negative nominal yields in 2020-2021.”
Looking back, we had 40 years of declining interest rates. Before that, we had 35 years of generally increasing rates that ended in 1981. Grant said it’s simply a matter of pattern recognition “to give it its intellectual most dignified term.”
This is nothing like a physical law, but this, as I say, has been the form for many, many years in bonds.”
The CNBC host seemed a bit befuddled by Grant’s analysis. After all, if the Fed is controlling rates, why would we see these long trends? If the economy is doing well, the central bankers can raise rates. If the economy suffers, they can lower them.
Grant said “they” don’t always control events.
He quoted former British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan who was asked, “What might go wrong.” He responded, “My boy, events! Events might go wrong.”
We have been used to, I think, imputing to the Fed immense powers of foresight and control. But oftentimes, the Fed, like so many of us, finds itself not in the vanguard of action or thought, but rather running behind to catch up. You know, the Fed can will all it likes to return the 2% world it has defined for itself, but if the past is prologue, the Fed will be evolving a new set of narratives to explain the new world. And I expect that to be coming at Jackson Hole any summer now.”
While it is difficult to see the future, Grant said we can at least observe the present and size up the odds the markets are laying on certain outcomes.
Grant called the Fed members “well-intentioned human beings,” with an emphasis on human beings. He said many scored well on the SAT and they probably would have rather worked at NASA doing physical science as opposed to the “pseudoscience” of economic forecasting.
As recently as the early months of 2022, with inflation percolating above 5%, they were still doing QE. So, we ask too much of them, or indeed, of any set of human beings.”
Would some kind of rule-based system be better?
Grant gave an enthusiastic, yes!
The rule would be that interest rates ought to be discovered in the market rather than imposed or suppressed. We have decided over the course of many years to conduct our monetary affairs by kind of a Ph.D. standard of improvisation. There are no rules, per se. The dollar is uncollateralized as it had been from the beginning of the country to 1971. So, to some extent, we are playing tennis without a net, and without baselines, and without sidelines. So, circumspection in public finance is out the window.”
Demonstrating just how out of whack things have become, Grant pointed out that in private sector terms, the Fed is broke.
So, what about all of the investors and businesspeople who have made bets based on perpetually low interest rates? Grant said he thinks the odds are against them.
Within this long cycle — this projected, imagined long cycle I foresee — there are all sorts of twists and turns. There were in the 70s, for example. Inflation didn’t go straight up. It was in three phases or slices. So, if past is prologue, what we’ll see is a time of long-trending higher rates with head-fakes that will get people convinced that 2% is right around the corner.”