Central Banks Are Wrong about Rate Cuts

April 29, 2024

When we talk about monetary policy, people do not understand the importance of interest rates reflecting the reality of inflation and risk. Interest rates are the price of risk and manipulating them down leads to bubbles that end in financial crises, while imposing too high rates can penalize the economy. Ideally, interest rates would flow freely and there would be no central bank to fix them.

A price signal as important as interest rates or the amount of money would prevent the creation of bubbles and, above all, the disproportionate accumulation of risk. The risk of fixing rates too high does not exist when central banks impose reference rates, as they will always make it easier for state borrowing—artificial currency creation—in the most convenient—what they call “no distortions”—and cheap way.

Many analysts say that central banks do not impose interest rates; they only reflect what the market demands. Surprisingly, if that were the case, we wouldn’t have financial traders stuck to screens on a Thursday waiting to decipher what the rate decision is going to be. Moreover, if the central bank only responds to market demand, it is a good reason to let interest rates float freely.

Citizens perceive that raising interest rates with high inflation is harmful; however, they do not seem to understand that what was really destructive was having negative real and nominal interest rates. That’s what encourages economic agents to take far more risks than we can take and to disguise excess debt with a false sense of security. At the same time, it is surprising that citizens praise low rates but then complain that home prices and risky assets rise too fast.

Inflation is a huge advantage for the currency issuer. It blames everyone and everybody for the rise in prices, except for the only thing that makes aggregate prices go up, consolidate that increase, and continue to rise, even at a more moderate rate: printing much more currency than the private economy demands and setting rates well below the real risk levels.

The benefit of statism is that it puts the blame for high interest rates on banks, just as it blames supermarkets for consumer prices.

Who prints currency and disguises risk? Of course, we look at the ECB and the Fed, who dictate the increase in money supply through repurchases and fixed interest rates. However, central banks do not buy back state assets, print money, or impose negative real interest rates because they are evil alchemists. They do so because the state’s deficit—which is artificial monetary creation—remains unsustainable, public debt is atrophied, and state solvency is worsened by imbalanced public accounts. The central bank is not responsible for implementing fiscal policy. Thus, the state is the one that prints money out of nowhere and passes the imbalance to the citizens through inflation and taxes.

Banks, in an open economy, do not create money out of nowhere; they lend to real projects that are expected to be repaid with interest, and those loans have collateral. If commercial banks created money out of nowhere, none of them would go bankrupt. They only create money out of nowhere when regulation imposes risk-disconnected rates and eliminates the need for capital to sustain the government by accumulating its bonds and loans under the false construction that they are “no-risk assets.” Thus, the castle of cards built under the disguise of public sector risk always creates inflation, financial crises, secular stagnation, and liquidity traps. The amount of money created goes to unproductive expenditure, destroys the purchasing power of the currency, impoverishes citizens, and at the same time decapitalizes the most fragile companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises). That’s what they call the social use of money. Seriously.

The ECB has announced a possible interest rate cut in June that is in danger of being premature and wrong. First, because money supply, credit demand, and supply are rebounding, inflation remains persistent and above the 2% target. Furthermore, the underlying trend is a much higher inflation level than the ECB’s target, even after two changes in the CPI calculation. After a 20% accumulated consumer price level since 2019, calling victory on inflation after two changes in the calculation of CPI and still elevated core inflation is insane. If we see the rise in non-replaceable goods prices, we can understand why citizens are angry. Real non-replaceable goods’ CPI is probably closer to 4-5% per year.

The ECB rate hikes are signaled by many market participants as the cause of the euro zone’s stagnation, but curiously, no one mentions that the euro area was already experiencing massive stagnation due to negative interest rates. Besides, if you need to have real negative rates to “grow,” you’re not growing but accumulating toxic risk. The ECB knows that the base effect, which played in favor of year-on-year inflation in 2023, will not be supportive in 2024. They also know that monetary aggregates were down a few months ago but are rebounding, and that the supply of credit has not collapsed. The ECB, like the Federal Reserve, knows that inflation is a monetary phenomenon and that there is no cost-push inflation, “greedflation,” or similar statist excuses. None of those factors can cause aggregate prices to soar, consolidate, or continue to rise; it is only the destruction of the currency’s purchasing power that causes inflation.

Of course, no central bank will acknowledge that inflation is its fault, among other things, because no central bank increases the money supply at will but to finance an unsustainable public deficit. However, no central bank will challenge a financial structure that is based on the myth that public debt is risk-free. Central banks know that inflation is a monetary phenomenon, which is why they attack rising consumer prices with rate hikes and money supply reductions. They just do it mildly because governments benefit from inflation.

The problem of lowering interest rates now, when there is no evidence of having controlled inflation and achieved a target that already erodes the purchasing power of the currency by 2% annually, is to fall into the narrative that the eurozone is in a poor economic situation because of monetary policy when it is due to the wrong fiscal policy, the disaster of the Next Generation EU Funds, whose failure is already only comparable to the forgotten Juncker Plan, a shortsighted and destructive energy, agricultural, and industrial policy, and a taxation system that shifts innovation and technology to other countries.

The ECB is aware that interest rates are not high and that the system’s money supply has not decreased as expected. In fact, it continues to repurchase outstanding bonds and will not carry out a significant reduction in its balance sheet in real terms until the end of the year. Lowering interest rates now includes the risk of depreciating the euro against the dollar and thus increasing the euro area’s import bill in real terms, reducing the inflow of reserves into the eurozone, and further encouraging public spending and government debt that has not been contained in countries like Italy and Spain, which boast of “growing” by massively increasing debt and where inflation, moreover, is not under control. All this reminds us of the mistakes of the past when Greece boasted to be the EU’s growth engine, and many said that Germany was Europe’s “sick member.” The ECB cannot pretend to be the Bank of Japan for two reasons: the eurozone lacks the luxury of Japanese society’s dollar savings structure or its iron citizen discipline, and, above all, because the failure of Japan’s ultra-Keynesianism has brought the yen to a 35-year low against the dollar.

To those who say that the euro and the ECB are the problem, I recommend that you exercise your imagination of what Spain, Portugal, or Italy would be with their own currency and populist governments printing as if Argentina were Switzerland. You don’t have to imagine it; remember when these countries had an inflation rate of 14–15% and they destroyed savings and real wages with the falsehood of “competitive” devaluations? It wasn't that long ago.

Courtesy of Mises.org

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Daniel Lacalle, PhD, economist and fund manager, is the author of the bestselling books Freedom or Equality (2020), Escape from the Central Bank Trap (2017), The Energy World Is Flat (2015), and Life in the Financial Markets (2014).


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