We've Been ZIRPed by the Fed
It isn't easy to earn interest income these days. Interest rates on government T-bills, banks' savings accounts, and certificates of deposit are microscopic. You can blame our government and central bank. They have "ZIRPed" millions of American savers. Here are the details:
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the average interest rate paid on federal debt, as of July, was just under 2.4 percent, implying an annual interest expense on $14.5 trillion of debt of nearly $350 billion. (Net debt, subtracting intra-governmental debt is lower; actual debt, including off-budget items, is higher.) If the average interest rate rose to 5 percent, the annual debt burden would rise correspondingly to well over $700 billion and consume approximately one-third of total federal revenues.
At some point, higher interest rates would consume such a large portion of federal revenues that only massive dollar-creation by the Federal Reserve could provide funding for government's myriad programs. Washington simply cannot afford for interest rates to rise, and therefore, the Fed will keep them abnormally low for as long as possible. In essence, the Fed has declared an end to a free market in interest rates.
The market price of interest rises when demand increases relative to supply and falls when supply increases relative to demand. Today's record-low interest rates imply that the supply of money saved -- i.e., capital -- is abundant relative to the demand for capital. It isn't.
Today's low interest rates are not the result of superabundant capital, but are the result of massive intervention by the Federal Reserve System. In response to the financial panic in 2008, the Fed adopted what is known as ZIRP -- a "zero interest rate policy." This August, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke announced his intention to maintain this policy for two more years. Doubling down on this engineered low-interest-rate policy, on September 21, the Fed announced "Operation Twist" -- its plan to force down long-term interest rates even more.
Without Fed intervention, the supply of savings -- genuine capital -- would not be sufficient to finance and refinance all of the world's debt. Interest rates are this low only because the Fed has been using its extraordinary powers to boost the supply of capital with "fiat capital" -- money that nobody has earned and saved, but that the Fed conjures up ex nihilo.
As with the supply of capital, Federal Reserve interventions, along with various government interventions, have manipulated the demand for capital. If the U.S. Treasury had to compete with vigorous private demand for capital, interest rates would rise, so it has been necessary to squelch private demand.
Government and its central bank have suppressed demand for capital in several ways.
First, the torrent of anti-wealth policies unleashed by the Obama administration has produced the "turtle phenomenon" -- many businesses have gone into shells, postponing plans to open or expand until the cloud of uncertainty and fear of arbitrary wealth-destroying policies blow over.
Second, the Fed has been paying interest (albeit a modest 0.25 percent) on banks' excess reserves, and that has reduced the incentive for banks to lend those funds.
Third, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that banks have been rationing credit so severely that even low-risk customers often are denied loans. The private sector's access to capital is being curtailed so that Uncle Sam can obtain scarce capital cheaply.
American savers are taking it on the chin in today's rigged capital markets. With interest rates on Treasury debt being ultra-low, when you factor in inflation and taxes, savers are paying the Treasury to hold their money instead of being compensated for lending their savings to the government. ZIRP is bailing out our bankrupt government at savers' expense. This is one way that wealth is being "spread around" in the Age of Obama.
By ZIRPing us unrelentingly, the Fed is proving that it is no friend of the people. To paraphrase the Gettysburg Address, the Fed is a tool "of the [government], by the [government], for the [government]." One is tempted to add: may it soon "perish from the earth."
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.