This week's wild actions on Wall Street should serve as a stark reminder that few investors have any clue as to what is really going on beneath the surface of America's troubled economy. But this week did bring startling clarity on at least one front. In its August policy statement the Federal Reserve took the highly unusual step of putting a specific time frame for the continuation of its near zero interest rate policy.
Moving past the previously uncertain pronouncements that they would "keep interest rates low for an extended period," the Fed now tells us that rates will not budge from rock bottom for at least two years. Although the markets rallied on the news (at least for a few minutes) in reality the policy will inflict untold harm on the U.S. economy. The move was so dangerous and misguided that three members of the Fed's Open Market Committee actually voted against it. This level of dissent within the Fed hasn't been seen for years.
Many economists have short-sightedly concluded that ultra low interest rates are a sure fire way to spur economic growth. The easier and cheaper it is to borrow, they argue, the more likely business and consumers are to spend. And because spending spurs growth, in their calculation, low rates are always good. But, as is typical, they have it backwards.
I believe that ultra-low interest rates are among the biggest impediments currently preventing genuine economic growth in the US economy. By committing to keep them near zero for the next two years, the Fed has actually lengthened the time Americans will now have to wait before a real recovery begins. Low rates are the root cause of the misallocation of resources that define the modern American economy. As a direct result, Americans borrow, consume, and speculate too much, while we save, produce, and invest too little.
It may come as a shock to some, but just like everything else in a free market, interest rate levels are best determined by the freely interacting forces of supply and demand. In the case of interest rates, the determinative factors should be the supply of savings available to lend and the demand for money by people and business who want to borrow. Many of the beneficial elements of market determined rates are explained in my book How an Economy Grows and Why it Crashes. But allowing the government to determine interest rates as a matter of policy creates a number of distortions.