Since Hayek’s time, monetary policy, particularly in America, has evolved away from targeting production and discouraging savings by suppressing interest rates, towards encouraging consumption through expanding consumer finance. American consumers are living beyond their means and have commonly depleted all their liquid savings. But given the variations in the cost of consumer finance (between 0% car loans and 20% credit card and overdraft rates), consumers are generally insensitive to changes in interest rates.
Therefore, despite the rise of consumer finance, we can still regard Hayek’s triangle as illustrating the driving force behind the credit cycle, and the unsustainable excesses of unprofitable debt created by suppressing interest rates as the reason monetary policy always leads to an economic crisis. The chart below shows we could be living dangerously close to another tipping point, whereby the rises in the Fed Funds Rate (FFR) might be about to trigger a new credit and economic crisis.
Previous peaks in the FFR coincided with the onset of economic downturns, because they exposed unsustainable business models. On the basis of simple extrapolation, the area between the two dotted lines, which roughly join these peaks, is where the current FFR cycle can be expected to peak. It is currently standing at about 2% after yesterday’s increase, and the Fed expects the FFR to average 3.1% in 2019. The chart tells us the Fed is already living dangerously with yesterday’s hike, and further rises will all but guarantee a credit crisis.
The reason successive interest rate peaks have been on a declining trend is bound up in the rising level of outstanding debt and loans, shown by the red line on the chart. Besides a temporary slowdown during the last credit crisis, debt has been increasing over every cycle. Instead of sequential credit crises eliminating malinvestments, it is clear the Fed has prevented debt liquidation for at least the last forty years. The accumulation of debt since the 1980s is behind the reason for the decline in interest rate peaks over time.
A quarter-point rise in interest rates, if it is reflected in the cost of servicing all outstanding debt, would be a burden to debtors of $167bn, and the increase from the zero bound is an added liability of over a trillion dollars so far. But it is more accurate and relevant to regard much of the accumulated debt as not immediately relevant, because it is in fixed interest bonds, including US Treasuries, and similar medium-term loans. Furthermore, where variable interest rates apply, nearly all major corporations have treasury officers which use