Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rates: When Zero Is Way Too High

Post Courtesy of Emily Mullin

BusinessWeek - Can an interest rate of zero be too high? Unfortunately, yes. A new analysis by Goldman Sachs (GS) concludes that the Federal Reserve's cut in the federal funds rate to a record low of zero to 0.25% on Dec. 16 isn't going to be nearly enough to get the economy going again. The report says the Fed would need to reduce the federal funds rate to negative 6% by the end of 2010 to supply the needed amount of monetary stimulus.

The problem: It's literally impossible to cut interest rates below zero. As a result, "we are entering a world with interest rates that are far too high for the economy's good," Goldman Chief U.S. Economist Jan Hatzius wrote in a Jan. 16 research note.

That's a big negative for a U.S. economy that's already in a deep slump, with retail sales, industrial production, and exports all plummeting. Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), General Motors (GM), and Chrysler, among others, are struggling to keep their heads above water. Circuit City, the second-biggest U.S. electronics retailer, announced on Jan. 16 that it was going out of business and closing all its stores by the end of March. Meanwhile, homebuilders like Lennar (LEN) and D.R. Horton (DHI) are getting squeezed by a record decline in home prices.

Ordinarily when the economy slows, the Federal Reserve can juice it up by cutting short-term interest rates to below the rate of inflation, meaning that in inflation-adjusted terms, rates are actually negative. For example, if inflation is running at 6% per year and interest rates are at 4%, the "real" rate is negative 2%. Negative real rates entice people to borrow money for consumption or investment, which gets the economy going again and soaks up unemployed workers and equipment.

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