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25 February 2018

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All I want for Christmas is real interest rates

Mark Geoghegan 13 December 2016

Dear Santa,

I have been very good again this year.

Since the financial crisis it's been a long hard winter for prudential industries like mine whose job it is to save up for everyone else's rainy days. Still, I keep the faith and plough on.

I know that the trouble with financial crises is that they all end the same way. The grossly indebted can't pay their debts and have to be bailed out either overtly or covertly.

But it's been a triple-whammy for me.

First, risk-free returns have been terrible and have eaten into margins. Second, lower yields have displaced income-seeking capital into our business, increasing competition and further compressing returns. But thirdly, the ever decreasing yields have created billions in new notional capital for us and everyone else to have to deploy, with the effect of... you already know the answer!

Is it right to presume my elder brother, the banking industry, is still on the naughty list for another year because of all the bad things he did before 2008?

If so, why does he seem to be the one getting all the best presents year after year?

I hate to moan but after picking up the tab for his follies for nearly eight yuletides I was wondering if I might be allowed at least some holiday cheer in 2017?

I notice bond yields have been ticking up on both sides of the Atlantic. Is the greatest monetary experiment in history finally coming to an end?

My hopes have been dashed before - but can I have real interest rates for Christmas this year?

Yours faithfully, The Insurance Industry.

Dear Insurance Industry,

It would a shock to the system if the Fed did anything other than add 25 basis points to its funds rate later on in the week.

So I can see why you may be keen to celebrate a return to sound money and the rewards for the prudent that only real interest rates can bring.

I'm sorry, but I can't promise you're going to like what I've got to say next.

Mrs Claus is my chief economist and she explains that for the first time in a generation we are seeing the advent of a US political regime that is advocating pure fiscal stimulus.

What's more, this is not a spending and tax cut package designed to avert a recession, but one aiming to boost economic growth at a time when that growth is only a little below long-term trend and there is nearly full employment.

Mrs Claus says inflation will be the logical result as labour rediscovers its muscle and capacity constraints start to be hit.

The problem for you could be a return to major social and claims cost inflation, the like of which the elves and I haven't seen since the seventies.

The Fed could find itself playing catch-up: not quite getting far enough ahead of the problem to get it fully under control.

I'm sorry, but if that happens you will get to experience a new and unfamiliar form of pain - claims costs increasing fast and investment returns rising, but not at a fast enough rate to keep up.

Capital will become scarcer, and the underprepared will fail.

At least then you will finally get the hard market you crave.

Sorry that my sack will be light again this year.

Santa xxx

PS. Mrs Claus is watching your reserving policies and discount rates like a hawk, so don't even think about being naughty like your big brother...

This article was published as part of issue December 2016/2

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