The Awful Truth that Lies Beneath the Talk of Interest Rates: Wells
Well I suppose this is some sort of progress.
The media, markets, policy makers and international economists who eagerly anticipated U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen’s speech at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Friday delighted in their ability to parse some of what Yellen had to say about the state of the economy.
The line “I believe the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened in recent months” was gathered up like autumn bounty. No need for one of those handy enigma machines!
This stands in stark contrast to that old oracle Alan Greenspan, worth citing here as it provides an opportunity to recall the famous words of onetime senator, now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “I never understand what he’s saying,” Clinton told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2008.
At the time she was advocating for an emergency group of advisers to deal with the U.S. mortgage crisis which, let’s recall, the constantly indecipherable Greenspan had a hand in creating when he was Reserve Board chair. Clinton thought that maybe Greenspan would be a smart mind to bring into the crisis circle. Opinion makers thought that was some kind of crazy.
Time moves on. The U.S. economy continues to expand (slowly) — cautious good news. But that recovery is led by household debt — worrying. Business investment remains “soft” and foreign demand remains “subdued.”
The takeaway? Perhaps Yellen will move to increase the federal funds rate in December. Although, you know, forecasting is tricky.
What remains unsaid: the U.S. remains an increasingly two-tiered economy. Even Greenspan bowed to the acknowledgment that Americans had not seen such a divergence of prosperity since the 1920s. The new world of work — multiple jobs just to get by; informal work — is reflected in the Fed’s own current research that shows a high preponderance of workers reporting that their income volatility is due to irregular schedules, if they’re lucky enough to cobble together a bunch of jobs, that is.
The structural overhaul of the economy is not news. Such disparity should be the main line of argument as the two U.S. presidential contenders move toward their first televised debate Sept. 26 in New York, where Donald Trump is bound to go hard on Clinton’s years as a U.S. senator.
North of the border, we should be bringing a heightened sense of economic enlightenment to the equation. The Bank of Canada is scheduled to make its interest rate announcement Sept. 7. Parliament resumes sitting Sept. 19. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s still focused on growing the middle class.
(I wish he would use the word “poor.” Too many Canadians are poor and underemployed or unemployed and, yes, one is too many.)
The moment had better be a wake-up call. As reported in the Star last week, debt is on the rise. According to a report from RBC, highly-leveraged Canadian households comprise about 21 per cent of the market, a whopping increase from 13 per cent prior to the recession.
The distribution of debt, wrote RBC analyst Laura Cooper, “has become increasingly skewed to those who have less capacity to cope with a shock such as ‘highly indebted younger households.’”
The Bank of Canada’s own economists have been issuing dire warnings about this state of affairs for months, as increases in consumer debt has been most marked among debtors under 45 years of age with debt-to-income ratios in excess of 350 per cent. The percentage of mortgage holders with debt to disposable income in excess of 500 per cent — this is frightening — doubled earlier this year to 10.8 per cent from 5.5 per cent.
Plus the percentage of loans issued by higher-interest-rate-charging, non-bank lenders has risen about five per cent.
Household spending in Canada, as in the U.S., has fuelled the economy. That can’t last. Surely Prime Minister Trudeau’s remedies will come clearer, soon.
Summer’s over. It’s time to get back to work.
Correction – August 29, 2016: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly referred to Hillary Clinton as a state senator.