December 3, 2023

Economix: Who Cares About the Fed?

Today's Economist

Casey B. Mulligan is an economics professor at the University of Chicago.

Short-term interest rates have an obvious effect on the housing market, but not the rest of the economy.

Federal Reserve policy affects short-term interest rates, bank regulation and eventually inflation. I will write about inflation next week, and my fellow Economix blogger Simon Johnson has written much about bank regulation, so today I focus on short-term interest rates.

The Federal Reserve, especially its New York branch, is actively engaged in buying and selling Treasury securities, and it lends money to banks on an overnight basis. As a result, it is widely thought that the Federal Reserve is an important determinant of the rate of interest paid on short-term Treasury securities.

By reducing the supply of Treasury securities and overnight loans, so-called “tight” monetary policy raises short-term interest rates. High short-term interest rates are said to discourage borrowing, and thereby curtail private sector investment projects. The idea is that private sector projects are undertaken only when their expected return exceeds the cost of borrowing.

In theory, high short-term interest rates result in relatively few capital projects, with high expected returns, and low short-term rates result in more capital projects, including those with lower expected returns.

But the effect of high short-term interest rates on Main Street’s economy has been exaggerated. Although it is commonly assumed that today’s rock-bottom rates should help strengthen a business recovery, it appears that business conditions actually have little to do with short-term money markets.

Many important private sector investment projects are relatively long term — it most likely takes a year or more for a project to be completed and deliver a positive cash flow to investors. As a result, many capital projects are financed through long-term borrowing, with equity financing, or out of corporate retained earnings, rather than borrowing in the short-term market where the Fed’s fingerprints are so obvious.

In theory, long-term interest rates could rise as the Fed tightens the short-term money market, because some savers would be on the margin of saving in either the short- or long-term markets. Equity capital markets and retained earnings could, in theory, also be subject to similar indirect effects.

Thus, the effects of Federal Reserve interest-rate policy on investment are indirect, and it is an empirical question as to whether the expected effects — tight money discourages investment projects — are significantly reflected in preventing capital projects with low expected returns.

Luke Threinen and I have measured national average profitability of capital projects from the national accounts by dividing total interest and profits in the economy during a year by the total capital stock in place at the beginning of the year. In doing so, we have distinguished residential capital (i.e., houses) from business capital.

Capital produces value over a number of years. In the case of housing capital, the value is in the form of shelter and the convenience of a home. For any piece of capital, profitability (capital’s marginal product, as economists call it) can be calculated as the dollar value it creates during a year — after subtracting depreciation, costs of labor, maintenance and intermediate goods — per dollar invested.

Owners of capital prefer their capital to be more profitable, rather than less. It’s the profitability of capital (after taxes and subsidies; more on those below) that makes an owner willing to purchase capital in the first place.

Chart 1 compares the profitability of housing capital to the inflation-adjusted return on one-year Treasury bills (for comparability with T-bills, housing profitability is adjusted for property taxes). Consistent with the view that tight monetary policy both raises Treasury bill rates and reduces housing investment, the two series are positively correlated. The home-mortgage market appears closely linked, so high Treasury bill rates cause banks to charge more for home mortgage loans, which discourages homeowners and landlords from building homes unless the demand for homes is sufficient (i.e., landlords can earn enough rent from their tenants to cover a high mortgage rate).

Among other factors, easy credit from the Federal Reserve in the early and mid-2000s made it easy to buy and build homes, and as the inventory of homes grew the amount of rent that each home could earn (many homes went vacant, for example) fell, which shows up in Chart 1 as especially low values for the red series. In this way, the housing cycle of the 2000s confirms the usual story about how monetary policy can affect housing investment.

The usual story about Federal Reserve policy and business investment says that a similar process works on the business sector: High Treasury bill rates cause banks to charge more for business loans, which discourages business from investing unless demand for their product is sufficient (i.e., businesses can earn enough profit from their operations to cover a high loan rate).

Our findings for the business sector are quite different from the usual story. Chart 2 compares the profitability of business capital to the inflation-adjusted return on Treasury bills, and the correlation is negative.

One way that easy monetary policy could hurt business investment is by encouraging home-construction activity, and home construction takes resources away from business construction.

The evidence in Charts 1 and 2 suggests that the housing market can be stimulated by easy monetary policy, at least in the short run. But the link between monetary policy and the business sector is much weaker, and our data are consistent with the view that, holding constant the rate of inflation and the amount of banking regulation, monetary policy does not have a discernible effect on the cost of business capital.

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