Liam Dann: Interest in rates at record high as economy shifts

OPINION:

I assume interest rates are called that because they are the are most interesting kind of rates.

I don’t know for sure because I haven’t done any research*.

The other kind of rates have something to do with sewage and local government and are so boring I can’t bring myself to open the envelope from the council when it arrives in the mail.

Interest rates are a triple whammy of interesting. They can earn you money, they can cost you money and they have magic powers to control the money supply, keep inflation stable and central bankers happy.

While interest rates are still technically near record lows, the rate of public interest in them seems to be at record highs.

Everyone has an opinion on them. Everyone is reading about them. Everybody is worried about them.

That’s because they’ve finally started to rise, I guess.

Last week all the major banks, led by ASB, lifted their fixed mortgage rates.

While this will cost me money, it’s a huge relief for those of us who spent a lot of time and energy thinking and writing about things that “might” be going happen.

Last week was a huge week for economy watchers.

The Reserve Bank stunned the market by deciding to call time on its Large Scale Asset Purchase programme.

Experts like to call this the LSAP programme … although sometimes they call it bond buying.

Other times they call it quantitative easing or QE.

Sometimes it’s just called money printing.

Quantitative Easing was more fashionable after the Global Financial Crisis but it’s tough to pronounce and also a bit vague.

Personally I like bond buying. Because that’s what actually happens.

The “A” in LSAP stands for “assets” and is a reminder that, in theory, the Reserve Bank could buy anything it thinks would inject cash into the economy.

If things had been bad enough, Adrian Orr could have come around to my place and offered me cash for my old Toyota and my Led Zeppelin records.

But as it turned out they stuck with buying New Zealand Government bonds – about $53 billion of them.

That sounds like a lot but it is onlya little more than half of the $100b they were prepared to buy.

The end of money printing at this point should be viewed as a victory for our economic response to Covid.

I should note that central bankers don’t love the term money printing.

While it’s true that the cash for all these purchases is magically generated by the Reserve Bank, it’s not actually free money.

That’s because the central bank has to actually hold my Toyota Wish or Government Bonds, or whatever they’ve bought, on their balance sheet with a view to selling at a later date and realising the value.

Central bankers like to call this unwinding, which sounds like something you should do with a nice glass of Chardonnay.

Anyway it’s all over rover – no more LSAP, QE, bond buying or money printing for New Zealand.

And that is another big step on the path to higher rates.

But wait, there’s more.

On Friday, new inflation data poured even more fuel on the interest-rate fire.

The Stats NZ Consumer Price Index showed inflation in the year to June came in at a 3.3 per cent increase.

The market had expected a spike to 2.7 per cent. Some economists – like Kiwibank’s Jarrod Kerr – had picked 3 per cent.

So 3.3 per cent was big news.

Prices “surged”, said the team at Capital Economics. Prices “sky-rocketed”, said ASB economists.

The rise was “monstrous” said the ANZ team, proving that inflation has well and truly taken hold in the world of economic commentary.

But we should forgive all this hyperbole.

It is a symptom of more than 10 years of pent-up frustration.

Since the world first started to emerge from the grip of the GFC in 2009, there have been rumblings about inflation and interest rates rising.

There have been numerous false starts.

Now we are into it. We are scrambling to make sense of conditions many haven’t seen in their working lives.

All over the world we are seeing old assumptions and models challenged and rewritten.

It’s been so long since we’ve been here that looking back to the inflationary days of the 1980s may no longer be relevant.

But even that isn’t clear yet.

Will the power of the internet to drive prices down (the phenomenon that had us talking negative rates and deflation less than a year ago) make this spike a short-term pandemic trend?

Economist are deeply divided. But it looks like we are about to find out.

And it looks like New Zealand is about to find out first.

These issues are being debated hard in the US, Europe, the UK and almost any where you care to look.

But once again we are at the front-end of the recovery curve.

A very interesting place to be.

* Just joking….the word “interest” relates to a legal claim or right and has roots in the 15th-century French term for damage or loss (everyone knows that).

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