To cut, or not to cut?

One of the benefits of writing this blog is that it provides the opportunity to research behind the headlines, and better understand what is really happening. Friday’s US payrolls report, which showed the first loss of US jobs for 4 years, is a classic example.
Nobody in the chemical industry should have been too surprised by the report. Dow’s CEO Andfrew Liveris was already emphasising, when reporting Q2 results, ‘continued weakness in the North American housing and automotive sectors’. BASF Chairman Jürgen Hambrecht similarly anticipated ‘large variations (in growth) from region to region’. Hambrecht added that the main risks to the world economy were ‘the renewed significant rise in the price of oil, the weak U.S. dollar, and tension in conflict areas around the world.’
It is also noticeable, as Bloomberg reports, that Fed Governors themselves are not joining the chorus from Wall Street and US Presidential candidates for big US interest rate cuts. On Thursday, when they must have known the payroll news, both Thomas Hoenig of the Kansas Fed, and Dennis Lockhart of the Atlanta Fed, said they hadn’t seen sure signs of a housing spillover into the broader economy. St. Louis Fed President William Poole and the Dallas Fed’s Richard Fisher added that the effects of the turmoil so far were unclear.
After Friday’s report, the IMF’s MD, Rodrigo Rato, agreed that there was ‘a serious crisis,’ and confirmed the Dow/BASF view that US growth is slowing. But his concern was quite different from Wall Street’s, as he went on to warn that that the real problem is that ‘systemically important banks may face constraints in extending credit.’
I share Rato’s view that the current US subprime lending crisis is about concerns over return of capital, not return on capital. Would cutting rates encourage lenders to lend more? Probably not. It might well make them more reluctant, by reducing their potential reward. It might also weaken the dollar, as overseas investors looked for higher returns elsewhere.
Over the past decade, as I argued earlier this year in the Financial Times, central bankers have too often confused being ‘market-friendly’ with being ‘friendly to markets’. Today, Philadelphia Fed President, Charles Prosser, lines up alongside his colleagues in trying to avoid this trap. He argues in a Hawaii speech that ‘disruptions in financial markets can be addressed using the tools available to the Federal Reserve, without necessarily having to make a shift in the overall direction of monetary policy’.
Will the Fed give in next week, and give the crowds what they want? If they do, they may well end up adding to the very problem they are trying to solve.

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