The interview below first appeared on the FRA website along with a video. The emphasis in italics is mine.
FRA: Hi, welcome to FRA’s Roundtable Insight. Today, we have Dr. Lacy Hunt. He’s an internationally recognized economist and the Executive V.P. and Chief Economist of Hoisington Investment Management Company, a firm that manages over $4.5 billion USD and specializing in the management of fixed income accounts for large institutional clients. He also served in the past as Senior Economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, where he was a member of the Federal Reserve System Committee on Financial Analysis. Welcome. Dr. Hunt.
Dr. Lacy Hunt: Nice to be with you, Richard.
FRA: Great. I thought we’d have a discussion on a variety of topics relating to the economy and the financial markets. You recently mentioned that you thought this was the worst economic expansion recovery in U.S. history since 1790. Wow. Can you elaborate?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: If you calculate the average growth rate in the expansions since 1790, this is a long-running expansion, but it’s the slowest and in the last 10 years the household sector lagged very, very badly. The rate of growth in real disposable household income per capita is only 0.9 percent per year. And in the last 12 months, we’re up only 0.6 percent per year. So it’s a long-running expansion, but it’s been a poor expansion. There are certainly problems with some of the earlier data, but this appears to be the slowest expansion since the turn of the 18th Century and our households are the main problem for the growth rate lag.
FRA: And do you point a finger for this cause as primarily on the Federal Reserve or do you see structural changes happening to the economy?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: I think that the main element suppressing growth is the heavily leveraged U.S. economy. We have too much public and private debt, and this debt does not generate an income stream for the aggregate economy. As a result of the prolonged indebtedness, which is on the verge of going much higher because of problems in the governmental sector, the economy is now experiencing very poor demographics. We have a baby bust, a household formation bust, and the lowest birth rate since 1937. These demographics are exacerbating the problems because we have too much of the wrong type of debt and thus the velocity of money has been falling since 1997. Velocity this year is only 1.43 percent, which is the lowest since 1949. Furthermore, the debt creates a situation where monetary policy capabilities are asymmetric. In other words, a lot of action is needed to provoke even a muted impact on the economy, whereas the slightest monetary tightening goes a long way in depressing economic activity. So the root cause of this underperformance is extreme indebtedness.
FRA: And what about the Federal Reserve? How has it undermined the economy’s ability to grow?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: The Fed’s most serious mistake was made in the 1990s up until 2006 during which they allowed the private sector to become extremely over-indebted with the wrong type of debt. And, in essence, I think that quantitative easing, through the push for higher stock prices, created more problems than it has solved for the economy. QT caused the corporate executives to switch funds from real capital investments into financial investments through the paying of higher dividends, buying shares of their own companies, and buying back their shares from others. While this type of action does produce a higher stock market; it doesn’t generate a higher standard of living. And so, Federal Reserve policy has not improved the economy, although it certainly has well served components of the economy.
FRA: And due to that do you think that there’s been too much financial investment versus real economy investment in terms of diverting the economic financial resources away from the real economy?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: I think that’s the principal problem. Business debt last year reached a record high relative to GDP. As I said earlier, Fed policies have created a higher stock market but have not generated an improved standard of living. When the Reserve undertook quantitative easing, it was a signal to the corporate executives that the Fed preferred and would protect financial investments. But that meant financial assets were preferred over real side investments. And so QT is intermingling with the growth-depressing effects of too much debt. And the debt levels are getting ready to move substantially higher in our governmental sector. Government debt is already approaching 106 percent of GDP, a record high with the exception of a brief period during World War II. And by 2030, federal debt will be approximately 125 percent of GDP. For a long time, we’ve known about the issues that would inflate the entitlements — such as the prior-mentioned demographic problems — but there is an increasing likelihood that new federal programs with expenditure increases will further accelerate the growth in federal debt. I think there is clear evidence that increases in federal debt at these high levels relative to GDP over any measurable length of time, reduces economic activity. Thus, the multiplier is not a positive but negative figure, or otherwise exactly what economist David Ricardo hypothesized in his 1821 work. I have looked at the relationship between per capita changes in real GDP and government debt per capita and the relationship is negative, not positive. And so, we’re trying to solve an indebtedness problem by taking on more debt. You can get intermittent spurts of economic activity and inflation, but ultimately the debt is a millstone around the economy’s neck.
FRA: So would you say that we have migrated to a sort of financial economy?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: Let me give you a couple of examples. There’s so much liquidity in the financial markets, particularly the stock market, that a lot of the economic news is constructively interpreted even when it’s unconstructive. Virtually the world believes that the United States is experiencing large job gains and the idea that such productivity may be incorrect is hardly considered. But the rate of growth in payroll employment on a 12-month basis peaked at 2.4 percent in early 2015 and for the last 12 months, has sunk to 1.4 percent. What is even more critical — if you look at just the expansions and don’t include the recessions since 1968 – is that the average growth in employment in an expansion year was 1.9 percent. And in the last 12 months, we are half a percentage point under that figure. Yet, given these numbers, there is an erroneous perception that the employment gains are strong. And this view undermines the improvement in the standard of living. And because of the liquidity and the need of some investors to fully participate in the rising stock market, investors tend to overlook other important developments. If we go back to the 12 months ending November of 2015, real average hourly earnings were up about 2.5 percent. And in the latest 12 months, real average hourly earnings gained a miniscule 0.2 percent. The liquidity tends to push the focus away from the more realistic interpretation of the economy for certain types of assets.
However, the weak performance overall and the deceleration in some of the indicators that I just referred to is not unnoticed by the bond market. So, we have a dichotomy in which the stock market is strongly up but the long-term bond yields are down. Now, the short-term yields are up because they are under the control or heavy influence of the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve is in the process of raising the short-term rates and winding down their portfolio. They sold 20 billion dollars of government agency securities in October and November, pushing up the short-term rates. Erstwhile, the long-term rates — which look at some of the more important economic fundamentals — are actually declining.
Another element not in the public understanding, since the Federal Reserve no longer produces this sort of monetary analysis, is a very sharp slowdown in the money supply’s rate of growth, bank loans, and within important credit aggregates. Last year, the M2 money supply was up 7 percent. In the latest 12 months, it decelerated to less than 4.5 percent. The rate of growth in bank loans and commercial paper, which topped out on a 12- month basis about 9 percent, is now under 4 percent. So the Fed is raising the short-term rates, reducing the monetary base, and causing a tightening in the financial side of the economy. Some investors understand what is happening and yet it’s not in the general psyche because such monetary analysis is increasingly rare.
However, another more public indicator is the very dramatic flattening of the yield curve. And when the yield curve flattens in such a way, first of all, it’s a symptom that monetary restraint is beginning to bite. Now, the slowdown in money supply growth and the bank credit flattening of the yield curve will occur well before there is any noticeable impact on a broad array of economic indicators or long lags in monetary policy. But when the yield curve starts flattening, that intensifies the effect of the monetary tightening because it takes away or, at the very least, greatly reduces the profitability of the banks and all those that act like banks. Banks make a profit by borrowing short and lending long. When those spreads recede, bank profitability is hurt, particularly for the higher, riskier types of bank loans since not enough spread exists to cover the risk premium. So the banks begin to pull back, further intensifying the restraint pressing on economic growth. To the vast majority of investors, we have an economy that is apparently doing well, but in fact there are elements right beneath the surface that strongly suggest to me that the outlook for 2018 is considerably more guarded than conventional wisdom implies.
FRA: And do you see the potential for an inverted yield curve in the near future?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: I’m not sure that we will have to invert because the economy is so heavily indebted and the velocity of money is its lowest since 1949. Now, a number of people have pointed out that we typically invert before a recession and historically such inversions have been the case most of the time — but not always if you go back far enough in time — and you should since this is not a normal economy. For example, money supply growth since 1900 has averaged about 7 percent per annum, whereas, currently, the rate of growth in M2 is about 36 percent below the long-term average, indicating a very weak growth rate. And the velocity of money is lower than all of the years since 1942 — with the exception of 7 years — and the economy has never been this heavily indebted. And so the yield curve could possibly approach inversion, but it may or may not occur or stay there very long because at that stage of the game, the flattening of the yield curve will greatly intensify all the other effects — the reduction in the reserve, monetary, and credit aggregates, as well as the weakness in velocity. And when this reduction becomes apparent, the Federal Reserve will not be able to reverse gears quickly enough to ameliorate the impact produced upon future economic growth.
FRA: So do you still see a secular low in bond yields on the long into the yield curve remaining in the future sometime?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: The lows have not been seen. The path there will remain extremely volatile. We will have episodes in which the long yields rise. My attitude is that the long yields can go up over the short run for any number of causes. While many elements work out of the system in the long end, yields cannot stay up. When yields go up — especially now that the yield curve is flattening — this intensifies monetary restraint, which puts downward pressure on commodities. This puts upward pressure on the value of the dollar and cuts back on the lending operations. Something I think has been somewhat overlooked in general euphoria over the strength of economic indicators, is the that commercial and industrial loans for all of the banks in the United States are now only up one-tenth of one percent in the last 12 months. There are forward-looking elements that have historically been very important for signaling that change is ahead. They don’t tell us the timing — timing is always difficult — but they are flashing signals that should be observed.
FRA: And as this plays out, do you see monetary policy and fiscal policy is changing, like will we get fiscal policy stimulus? Will there be a change in monetary policy and how will that look like?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: Here’s my attitude: the new federal initiatives, whether tax cuts or infrastructure or otherwise will not provide a boost to the economy if they are funded with increases in debt — that’s where we’re at. And by the way, it’s been that way for some time. If you go back to 2009, we had a one-trillion-dollar stimulus package that was said to be inflationary and was going to boost economic growth, but yet we still had this very poor expansion and little inflation except for intermittent bouts here and there, largely from highly-priced inelastic goods. All the while, the inflation rate has trended lower.
For example, when President Reagan cut taxes, government debt was 31 percent of GDP and now that’s 106 percent on its way to 120-125 percent. And so if you go back and if you read Ricardo’s great article in 1821, he was asked whether it made a difference as to whether the Napoleonic wars were financed by taxes or by borrowing. Ricardo said that, theoretically, either way private sector activity was going to be suppressed. Now we have a lot of evidence, including some that I produced, that the government multiplier is negative, not positive, over a three-year period. Thus, the tax cuts may work for a very short while, but not on balance. And if the tax cuts were revenue-neutral and financed by reductions in government expenditures that would be a positive since the evidence shows tax multipliers are more favorable than expenditure multipliers. Such a theoretical proposal would provide greater efficiency for private sector spending and government spending. There’s also evidence that you would lower the cost of capital, but that’s not what we’re talking about is it? We’re talking about a debt-financed tax cut and we’re not talking about a revenue-neutral infrastructure plan, just as we were not talking about a revenue-neutral stimulus package in 2009. We’re talking about the debt-financed variety of tax cuts and at this stage of the game, this will make us more vulnerable, except for a few fleeting instances.
I will say this: when you have a debt-financed infrastructure program or tax cut, there will be pockets within the economy that will benefit, but the aggregate economic performance will not benefit and so fiscal policy, as I see it, is not really going to be helpful. The risk is that the debt buildup will add to the problems. There is extensive academic research indicating that when government debt rises above 90 percent of GDP for more than five years, this trend will reduce the economy’s growth rate by a third. Remember, we’re at 106 percent debt to GDP and there’s evidence these higher levels of debt have a non-linear effect. In other words, we use up growth at a faster pace. And there’s a lot of evidence from the available data that we’re even losing a half of our growth rate from the trend. For example, GDP has risen at 2.1 percent per capita since 1790. The latest 10 years produced a reduction to 1.0 percent. And so we should have lost only seven-tenths or come down at 1.3 over 1 but we didn’t and this is a consequence that we have to deal with. We’re not in a position to ignore the debt levels. Fiscal policy can be talked about, we can debate about it, and we can proclaim its benefits, but I don’t see them in the current environment just as I didn’t see them in 2009. I would change my tune if they were revenue-neutral, but that’s not the issue here.
To me, inflation is a money-price-wage spiral not a wage-price spiral as with the Phillips curve. The way inflations begin is by money supply growth acceleration not being offset by weakness in velocity, which shifts the aggregate demand curve inward. Remember, the aggregate demand curve is equal to money times the velocity by algebraic substitution as evidenced in all the leading textbooks on macroeconomics. So you have declines in the money supply and velocity, which will make the aggregate demand curve shift inward over time. This shift gives you a lower price level and a lower level of real GDP. It doesn’t happen every quarter or even every year, but it’s the basic trend. Thus, monetary policy is in the process not of decelerating money supply growth and by a significant amount. If the Fed adheres to their schedule of quantitative tightening, I calculate M2 will grow by the end of the first quarter – it’s currently running around four and a half percent – and the year over year growth rate will be down to less than 3 percent. And so monetary policy is taking steps to lower the reserve monetary and credit aggregates, and these actions will further flatten the curve because they can press the short rates upward. But I think the long-term investors will understand that the inflationary prospects on a fundamental basis are weakening not strengthening.
FRA: And do you see these trends as being exacerbated on the emerging government pension fund crisis? Could there be more debt used to solve that like for bailouts? Do you see that potentially happening?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: Well the main problem with government debt is that we’re going to have approximately one million folks a year reach age 70 in the next 14 to 15 years and we’ve known that this was coming, but we didn’t prepare for it. We’ve made a lot of promises under Social Security Medicare and the Affordable Care Act and government debt will have to be used to fund the entitlement benefits — I don’t see any other way around it. Another overlooked problem is that the actual federal fiscal situation is much worse than these surface numbers. For example, in the last three years, the budget deficit worsened each year. If you sum the budget deficits for 2015, 2016 and 2017, the sum is 1.2 trillion, but a lot of what was previously called “outlays” have been moved off budget — we call them investments (such as student loans) and there are other examples. The actual increase in federal debt in the last three years is 3.2 trillion. So the budget deficit is actually greatly understating what is happening to the level of federal debt which wasn’t always the case. Furthermore, the deficit was made worse by a 2015 bipartisan deal between Congress and the White House. And while neither party is blameless — they both agreed on the deal — yet it doesn’t change the fact that the federal situation is deteriorating and at a much worse rate than the deficit numbers themselves indicate.
FRA: And what about for state and local jurisdiction locales, in terms of their government pension funds? Could there be federal level bailouts at that level?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: Again, what are they going to bail them out with? You’re going to have to sell Federal Securities. And one of the multipliers on new sales of Federal debt is negative, not positive. Forget what was taught you in your macroeconomic class 30, 20, or even 15 years ago. When I was in graduate school, I was taught that the government multiplier was somewhere between four and five percent. Now, it looks like the multiplier is at best zero and even possibly slightly negative.
FRA: Great insight as always. How can our listeners learn more about your work, Dr. Hunt?
Dr. Lacy Hunt: We put out a quarterly letter as a public service. Write to us at hoisingtonmgt.com and we’ll put your name on the subscription list. We don’t spam you with marketing so please go ahead and subscribe.
FRA: Okay, great. Thank you very much for being on the Program, Dr. Hunt. Thank you.
Dr. Lacy Hunt: My pleasure Richard. Nice to be with you
Economics as Taught
Note Lacy's comments on what he learned in graduate school. Lacy once told me that he had to "unlearn" nearly everything he was taught in school about economic.
Multiple generations of economists have been trained to believe inflation is a good thing, saving is bad, that there are no consequences for piling up debt.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock