Low Interest Rates Alone Won’t Do It

With deficit hawks circling overhead, the responsibility for creating jobs has fallen by default to Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. Last week the Fed said it expected to keep interest rates near zero through mid 2015 in order to stimulate employment.

Two cheers.

The problem is, low interest rates alone won’t do it. The Fed has held interest rates near zero for several years without that much to show for it. A smaller portion of American adults is now working than at any time in the last thirty years.

So far, the biggest beneficiaries of near-zero interest rates haven’t been average Americans. They’ve been too weighed down with debt to borrow more, and their wages keep dropping. And because they won’t and can’t borrow more, businesses haven’t had more customers. So there’s been no reason for businesses to borrow to expand and hire more people, even at low interest rates.

The biggest winners from the Fed’s near-zero rates have been the big banks, which are now assured of two or more years of almost free money. The big banks haven’t used the money to refinance mortgages – why should they when they can squeeze more money out of homeowners by keeping them at higher rates? Instead, they’ve used the almost free money to make big bets on derivatives. If the bets continue to go well, the bankers will continue to make a bundle. If the bets sour, well, you know what happens then. Watch your wallets.

The truth is, low interest rates won’t boost the economy without an expansive fiscal policy that makes up for the timid spending of consumers and businesses. Until more Americans have more money in their pockets, government spending has to fill the gap.

On this score, the big news isn’t the Fed’s renewed determination to keep interest rates low. The big news is global lender’s desperation to park their savings in Treasury bills. The euro is way too risky, the yen is still a basket case, China is slowing down and no one knows what will happen to its currency, and you’d have to be crazy to park your savings in Russia.

It’s a match made in heaven – or should be. Because foreigners are so willing to buy T-bills, America can borrow money more cheaply than ever. We could use it to put Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling highways and bridges and schools, cleaning up our national parks and city parks and playgrounds, and doing everything else that needs doing that we’ve neglected for too long.

This would put money in people’s pockets and encourage them to take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates to borrow even more. And their spending, in turn, would induce businesses to expand and create more jobs. A virtuous cycle.

Yet for purely ideological reasons we’re heading in the opposite direction. The federal government is cutting back spending. It’s not even helping state and local governments — which continue to lay off teachers, fire fighters, social workers, and police officers.

Worst of all, we’re facing a so-called “fiscal cliff” next year when $109 billion in federal spending cuts automatically go into effect. The Congressional Budget Office warns this may push us into recession – which will cause more joblessness and make the federal budget deficit even larger relative to the size of the economy. That’s the austerity trap Europe has fallen into.

Mitt Romney has been criticizing the Obama administration for not doing more to avoid the cliff, but he seems to forget that congressional Republicans brought it on when they refused to raise the debt ceiling. They then created the cliff as a fall-back mechanism. Romney’s vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, chair of the House budget committee, voted for it.

It’s a mindless gimmick that presumes our biggest problem is the deficit, when even the Fed understands our biggest problem right now is unemployment. Yet even the nation’s credit-rating agencies have bought into the mindlessness. Last week Moody’s said it would likely downgrade U.S. government bonds if Congress and the White House don’t come up with a credible plan to reduce the federal budget deficit. (Standard & Poor’s has already downgraded U.S. debt.)

Hello? Can we please stop obsessing about the federal budget deficit? Repeat after me: America’s #1 economic problem is unemployment. Our #1 goal should be to restore job growth. Period.

The Federal Reserve Board understands this. And at least it’s trying. But it can’t succeed on its own. Global lenders are giving us a way out. Let’s take advantage of the opportunity.

About Robert Reich 547 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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