Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thoughts On Canada Interest Rates at 0.75%

Today, the Bank of Canada dropped it's official rate from 1% to 0.75%.  This is just the day after Obama stepped up to the plate and announced "Tonight, we turn the page," and following on with "The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong."

If the shadow of crisis has passed and the Bank is dropping it's rates, what's going on?  Quite simply, it's all a game of media posturing; There's an old Indian phrase that runs along the lines of "If everyone tells you that you're sick, go and lay down" this same psychology can be used to rally people into believing that "The economy is not sick, so get up and spend!".

So why is it Obama is saying everything is fine, yet the Bank of Canada is reducing rates, Europe is getting ready to inject more printed money, all the shops have been in permanent "Sale" mode for over six years and many North American car manufacturers are still pushing "employee pricing" to normal consumers?

To understand what's actually going on, we need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture by getting above the viewpoints of Canada and the USA, and looking at it through neutral eyes of someone like the BIS.

If you've no idea who the BIS is, a quick history recap follows:

In layman's terms (not 100% accurate, but good enough for the purposes of this article), the BIS was a bank that was setup to deal with Germany's reparation debts after WWI.  It was a central bank to a number of nations that made sure payments went where they needed to go, and because of Switzerland's neutrality in most international affairs, it was located there in a place called Basel.  

As time went by, the BIS superseded that initial role and now it has more member countries and it still tries to keep everyone's money in check between nations - not just the original members money.  This groups largely keeps quiet, but on occasion it will notice that the banking systems in the world are getting a bit screwy, and it makes a recommendation.  These recommendations are not law - they're just impartial advice to banks on how to avoid trouble that doesn't take into account politics.  It's pure economics.

The first recommendation was after the 1974 liquidation of the Herstatt Bank in Cologne, and it was known as the "Basel Accord".  It basically stipulated that in the same way you need to keep money in your account to cover your mortgage whilst your latest pay check clears, banks need to keep a certain amount to cover time differences like when dealing with New York as the counterparty banks still need to be paid on time during the settlement processes if the money hasn't arrived at it's destination yet.  As you can guess, this was before the Internet and we still had to stuff big bags of money on planes and trains, hence the delays.

Then the BIS went quiet again.

The second recommendation was in 2004.  The BIS knew what was coming with the reckless lending that was happening, and basically told banks to shore up reserves to make sure they didn't go under.  This was known as "Basel II" - a term I'm sure you've seen mentioned in the news.  Many banks had trouble meeting this goal, and then the crash of 2008 put the wind up these banks so fast that they quickly locked down all lending and magically "found" the money needed to not go under.  The money was so locked up in this fear, that governments had to print new money to get liquidity going again.

The third recommendation was in 2010-11 as a response to what had happened with the deficiencies found in the financial crisis.  Known as "Basel III", the timeline to implement this started in January 2013.  It's purpose was to increase how much the banks need to hold onto, and to make sure they stand up to a stress-test.

So, now you've got a bit of history explaining how we got to where we are, let's go back to the Bank of Canada.

If we have a low interest rate, this should spur people into borrowing more money.  If people borrow money, they spend it on goods and services, generating income for people, and they owe it back to the lender with interest, generating income there too. This much is common sense.  However, we've had several years of cheaper cars (remember the additional gov rebate to get you to ditch your old cars and get a new one to stop the auto industry collapsing?), and several years of cheaper electronics, and several years of perpetual retail sales.  And many people have moved and got new mortgages using these lower rates. 

In other words - people have bought pretty much everything they want - this leaves very few items (food being a major one) whose prices have not come down as demand has not gone away.

There's one thing missing from the picture so far:  Oil.  

Whilst Alberta makes money from Oil, everyone else buys it.  However, they buy it well in advance of when they need it by locking in a price that they think will reflect the market when it comes time to deliver the oil - this is known as a "futures contract".  So, now everyone in places like Ontario is manufacturing with Oil bought a year ago or 6 months ago at higher prices, and is making things that are coming down in price to try and get demand going again.

And that strategy is just not working - and it hasn't worked for the past 7 years.

So, given that the economy isn't generating the revenue it needs, someone has to do something.  Unfortunately, the only two things they can do is:
1) Print money to devalue the dollar, in the hope that we can export more stuff to other countries because it looks cheaper....
2) Lower interest rates to spur people into borrowing money to cover this slump.

Out of those two options, #1 is not really an option as the dollar is already quite low compared to the US Dollar which international trade is most often done in.  This leaves option #2.

This can go two ways:  It works, which is highly unlikely in my mind because the demand slump problem doesn't go away.  Or, it fails.  This failure is what I think will happen.  We'll see some investment in new facilities, new economic action plan items, etc, but all this does is create more debt that has to be paid back - stretching what little money is available to start with.  

It's basically adding to the problem and then kicking that problem down the road a little bit.  That is dangerous.  There's a pretty good explanation as to why.

The one thing that we don't hear about these days that used to be common sense is the idea of the business cycle.  About every 7 to 8 years we see a slump in the economy, then it rebounds.  We crashed in 2008 - we should have recovered by now but haven't.  

2015 is the next dip in the cycle.  What is the worst that could happen?  Well, here it is in a nutshell.  With the oil so cheap, many nations don't generate income, which means they can't repay their debts - which means other nations go without too.  If everyone tightens their belts, the USA is the biggest victim in a downturn of global spending.  

In Canada, we're highly influenced by what goes on next door (As the joke goes, "the USA sneezes and Canada catches a cold"), but this time around it's quite a lot worse - like orders of magnitude worse.

I'm not going to be surprised if we see a zero interest rate in Canada, and possibly a negative one before this is over.