The great financial writer James Grant probably knows more about interest rates than anyone on the planet. So we should pay attention when he suggests America’s four-decade experiment in rates that only go down, down, and down appears to be over.
The striking thing about the bond market and interest rates is that they tend to rise and fall in generation-length intervals. No other financial security that I know of exhibits that same characteristic. But interest rates have done that going back to the Civil War period, when they fell persistently from 1865 to 1900. They then rose from 1900 to 1920, fell from 1920 or so to 1946, and then rose from 1946 to 1981—and did they ever rise in the last five or 10 years of that 35-year period. Then they fell again from 1981 to 2019–20.
So each of these cycles was very long-lived. This current one has been, let’s say, 40 years. That’s one-and-a-half successful Wall Street careers. You could be working in this business for a long time and never have seen a bear market in bonds. And I think that that muscle memory has deadened the perception of financial forces that would conspire to lead to higher rates.
—James Grant, speaking to the Octavian Report …
One fears our under-forty financiers really have little understanding of the basic function of interest rates, a function Mises explained so clearly more than one hundred years ago. Interest rates should act as “prices,” as Mr. Grant states, or more precisely, as exchange ratios. They bring together borrowers and savers, thus performing a critical function of capital markets and allocating resources to their best and highest uses.
Yet, in 2022, interest rates are widely viewed as policy tools. They are economic controls, determined and tinkered with by technocratic central bankers when the economy overheats or chills. We expect central banks to “set” interest rates, an impossibility in the long run but also a perverse goal in a supposedly free economy.
What other prices do we want centrally planned? Food, energy, housing? Should the Fed direct how many cars GM produces in 2022, the price of a bushel of wheat, or the hourly wage for an Amazon warehouse employee? Is this the Soviet Union?
Of course not. But those who view money as a political creation are once again prone to fundamental errors. They don’t understand money qua money. They certainly cannot imagine a world without “monetary policy,” which is plainly a form of central planning. …
This four-decade experiment in price fixing of interest rates, described as cyclical by Mr. Grant, not surprisingly corresponds with a dramatic rise in the US M1 money supply. In January 1982, the Fed’s “narrow money” was less than $450 billion. In January 2022, it was more than $20 trillion — roughly forty-four times bigger!
Bureaucratic fiddling with interest rates creates the illusion of wealth (look at how much money our assets are worth!), but only in the short term. And look who benefited most:
We can call this monetary hedonism: a combination of low rates and ever-growing money supply designed to create an illusion of real wealth. Monetary hedonism is an arrangement which encourages our whole society to live beyond its means, using monetary policy rather than direct tax-and-spend policy. It directly benefits both the Beltway and the banking classes, who enjoy an exorbitant political privilege due to their proximity to newly created cheap money. After all, Congress can service $30 trillion+ of debt with interest payments of less than $400 billion—thanks to a weighted average interest rate of only about 1.6 percent on that debt. …
Yet there is always a price to be paid for unearned profligacy. The hangover follows the party. We all sense it. A reckoning is coming for the inflationary US dollar. That reckoning will come for entitlements, for congressional spending, for deranged US foreign policy, and for Treasury holders.
But this economic reckoning is not the full story. We must also consider the incalculable but rarely considered social and cultural costs.
What happens to society when spending is encouraged and saving is for chumps? … This is the perversity of our times: with inflation rates higher than savings rates, the overwhelming incentive is to spend and borrow rather than produce and save. …
The good old days were different:
When lots of people save and invest, across society, we call it capital accumulation. And as Hoppe posits, this is not just economic — it is cultural and civilizational. Thrifty people like our grandparents, generation after generation, bequeathed to us an almost unimaginable world of affordable food, water, habitation, transportation, communication, medicine, and material goods of every kind. They did this out of love and sacrifice, but they also did it because the monetary system rewarded saving.
Today, the opposite is true. Monetary policy across the West is an agent of decivilization. It upends the natural, innate human impulse to save for a rainy day and leave our children better off. It encourages consumption over production, profligacy over thrift, and political promises today that will be paid for by savers and taxpayers tomorrow. Monetary policy degrades and deforms the economy, but ultimately its corrosive effects impact the broader culture.
The culmination of banking evolution draws nearer, as real debt levels creep ever higher.