Halloween Special: How Hillary Can Handle Scary Interest Rate Hikes

Halloween Special: How Hillary Can Handle Scary Interest Rate Hikes

October 31, 2016

Looking past this weekend’s kerfuffle over Huma Abedin’s emails, Hillary Clinton’s success in her first term as President will depend in large part on whether the incomes of most Americans keep rising. As readers of this blog know, my studies tracking people’s incomes, year to year as they aged, found that the median household incomes of millennials, Gen Xers and boomers all grew at healthy rates in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Moreover, this income progress reached across gender, race and ethnicity, and educational levels. That’s why consumer confidence and President Obama’s approval ratings are now so high.

The catch is that for most households, these gains came after a decade of income losses from 2001 to 2012. Hillary’s first challenge is to avoid a recession that could overwhelm most people’s recent gains — and her opportunity is to provide four more years of income progress that could well make most Americans optimistic again.

The challenge could start between Hillary’s election and inauguration, in December when the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) next votes on raising short-term interest rates. At the FOMC’s last meeting in September, its members voted seven to three not to raise those rates; but most Fed watchers expect the Committee to reverse this stance in December. Based on the Fed’s history, that decision will be followed by a long succession of additional interest rate hikes over the next three years. If that happens, growth and income gains could stall or worse as the costs for businesses to invest, and for consumers to buy a home, a car or a major appliance, all rise.

Traditionally, the Fed raises interest rates when the economy threatens to overheat and pump up inflation. But this time, there is little evidence of such a scenario. Inflation has risen at an annual rate of less than two percent for 51 consecutive months, and growth this year has been modest.  Moreover, based on long-term interest rates, U.S. and global investors expect low weak inflation to persist for years.

The only evidence that inflation hawks can cite is the recent strength of job creation. From January 2013 to September 2016, U.S. businesses added an average of 204,000 net new jobs per month. That’s nearly the pace last seen under Bill Clinton, when business created an average of 219,000 net new jobs per month from January 1993 to December 2000. Worrying about inflation may make sense once we reach full employment, since when that happens, competition for workers pushes up wages that are passed on in higher prices.

But the United States is not at full employment today, or close to it. Large numbers of people continue to work part time and not by choice, and labor force participation by prime age Americans remains abnormally low.

 The Fed’s only real argument for raising interest rates is strategic — higher rates create the room for the Fed to cut them in the next downturn. But even with 2.9 percent growth in the third quarter, the economy has expanded at a rate of less than two percent this year, and fixed investment has declined four quarters in a row. In this economic environment, a succession of rising interest rates over the next two years could trigger that downturn. And as the Bank of England has noted, if an economy begins to decline while short-term rates remain near zero, central bankers can still use quantitative easing to stimulate demand.

 It’s worth noting that near-zero interest rates carry risks of their own. With yields on government bonds so low, large investors have shifted to riskier investments with higher yields. That’s why commercial real estate is rising, why there’s a bubble in art markets, why prices for agricultural land and junk bonds are historically high, and why the price-to-earnings ratio for U.S. stocks is now 30 percent above its historical average.

These risky investments could pose a threat to the economy and people’s incomes, if a substantial jump in interest rates triggers a large decline in the U.S. stock, real estate and junk bond markets. Moreover, much like the run-up to the 2008-2009 crisis, the big financial institutions may not have paid enough attention to the risks in their high-yield investments. To be safe, Hillary should call on the Treasury and the Fed to audit those institutions through a new round of “stress tests,” and then ensure that any major institution with a shaky portfolio takes steps quickly to reduce its exposure.

If, as now expected, the Fed goes ahead and raises interest rates, the economic fate of most Americans will rest in the new President’s hands. Hillary’s best response will lie in fiscal policy.  Her first budget should call for more spending on infrastructure, new grants to the states to begin their transition to free tuition at public institutions, bigger Obamacare subsidies to offset the fast-rising premiums expected in 2017, and expanded support for research and development. On the tax side, new incentives for business plant and equipment also are in order. Hillary should cast all of these measures as an investment agenda for long-term growth, and not wave the red flag of “stimulus” in the faces of congressional Republicans.

Her first budget also should include measures to directly support income progress by working people, including the increase in the minimum wage, pay equity guarantees, and the expansion of the earned income tax credit. Finally, she can pay for all of these measures, as promised, by ending carried interest, closing corporate loopholes, and raising taxes on wealthy households.  She can also ensure that these tax changes don’t slow a fragile economy by phasing them in starting a year or two down the road.

The Federal Reserve is a very powerful force in the American economy. But so is the President — and a determined President Hillary Clinton can protect the incomes of Americans even if the Fed prematurely raises interest rates.