From Net Collector to Payer

We’ve discussed many times before how the Federal Reserve sets the interest rates for everything from used car loans to mortgages to savings accounts across the US. The task has always fallen to the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) and its “Fed Funds Rate”. As far as anyone can tell they perform a calculation based on the prevailing conditions as to what the optimal rate should be. They balance out the need for more jobs (favored by cheap money, or low rates) with a desire to keep inflation in check (with high rates) and a rate is published. From that baseline for the cost of no-risk money a premium is added by a bank based on the risk (low for a mortgage, high for a used car) or subtracted (the value of savings) and all is good.

Except for one small detail – that mechanism has been horribly broken since 2008 when every calculation suggested the optimal rate was below zero. As long as rates are near zero and there’s a flood of cash in the financial world (not that you are getting any) we have what’s known as a “liquidity trap”. And the way interest rates are going to be set in the near future is going to turn on some far more obscure things such as the “Reverse Repo Rate”.

Yes, it’s complicated.

Continue reading