Are central bankers tinkering with interest rates too much?

Central banks face a Herculean task to keep economies right-side up.

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  • In the shadow of COVID-19, we're rapidly approaching the point where there's nothing to buy, and no one has any money to buy it with.
  • Central bankers have responded to the coronavirus's economic fallout by tinkering with interest rates and instituting quantitative easing (QE) plans.
  • Artificially lowering interest rates essentially incentivizes debt and discourages fiscal responsibility, whereas other measures, such as subsidized furloughs, may be more effective and better suited to the current situation.

The coronavirus outbreak is bringing fears for the world's economic health – not just its physical health. The global economy was in difficult shape to begin with, due to international trade wars and rising global debt, but now, to a great degree, economic activity has come to a full stop.

Spending has plummeted, and businesses have closed, with the knock-on effect of pushing unemployment through the roof. Factories are shuttered, so production has fallen along with demand. The world's financial markets are spiraling downwards: The S&P has fallen 20 percent since the beginning of the quarter; the Dow Jones is down more than 23 percent; the NASDAQ lost over 1,300 points in three months.

We're rapidly approaching the point where there's nothing to buy, and no one has any money to buy it with.

Central bankers like Jerome Powell, head of the Federal Reserve; Andrew Bailey, head of the Bank of England, central bank of the UK; and Christine Lagarde, head of the EU's European Central Bank (ECB), face a Herculean task to keep their economies right-side up.

They need to deal with the short-term economic spiral as markets, cities, and entire sectors shut down. And on another level, they also need to prevent long-term economic decline that can result from fears of volatile markets, the destruction of numerous SMEs and even larger corporations, and unemployment stretching into a long-term problem as businesses fail to get back on their feet.

We're seeing central bankers primarily respond by tinkering with interest rates and quantitative easing (QE) plans:

  • The Federal Reserve led the way, cutting interest rates to almost 0 percent, promising to buy unlimited amounts of treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities as needed, and agreeing to buy some corporate and municipal debt.
  • The Bank of England suddenly cut interest rates to 0.25 percent, then cut them again to 0.1 percent, alongside a promise to buy £200 billion in government bonds.
  • The ECB didn't cut interest rates, presumably because they are already at -0.5 percent. This initially provoked a volatile few days for the euro, but it stabilized, and the eurozone has rallied, thanks to the ECB's announcement of a €750 billion QE stimulus package.

The danger is that rate cuts and QE plans may be entirely the wrong approach. Here's why.

Adjusting interest rates could be actively damaging

Interest rates cuts have long been the tool of choice for central banks, but that doesn't mean they're the right tool.

Artificially lowering interest rates essentially incentivizes debt and discourages fiscal responsibility at times when businesses and individuals need to focus on being frugal and sustainable. As a generation saw huge amounts wiped off their pensions, they learned to stop saving and embrace the debt. Businesses and whole governments took the same approach, borrowing more and more in order to invest in their own expansion.

While this creates an image of a healthy economy, it's just a dangerous mirage. Much of the developed world now inhabits an unsteady bubble of personal debt, corporate debt, and government debt, encouraged by the consistently low interest rates, leaving no one able to bear a recession when interest rates have nowhere to go but up.

As Peter Schiff, CEO of Euro Pacific Capital, puts it, the current crisis isn't caused by COVID-19, but by the unsustainable bubble of debt. "Too many analysts are focusing on the pin that burst the bubble, but the problem is really the bubble not the pin," he notes. Indeed, many pundits had long predicted a recession in early 2020 – it's easy to argue that if it hadn't been sparked by coronavirus, it would have been sparked by something else.

In this context, cutting interest rates is simply not helpful and is actively damaging. These steps only increase the amount of debt borne by central banks, inflate the bubble further, and make the situation worse. The recent Federal Reserve interest rate cut didn't help stabilize the markets much, showing that investors no longer have much faith in rate cuts.

What are we seeking to incentivize, anyway? Does society really benefit by people having the discretionary income to spend more time in stores and restaurants? The nature of the current situation calls for a specific type of austerity.

On the other hand, it's true that raising interest rates now would be similarly catastrophic. What businesses need right now is enough cash to stay afloat until after the initial crisis has passed.

Central banks can be more creative when pressed

Alongside the interest rate cuts and QE measures, we are seeing some more creative moves. The Federal Reserve agreed to buy some corporate and municipal debt, which is, admittedly, another QE measure but also a way of promising cash to large corporations. However, they are only offering this to corporations above a certain scale, which could be problematic because there are so many companies that don't pass the bar.

The Federal Reserve also moved to make it easier for banks to give loans to small businesses, expanding SBA loans and opening a lending facility that will allow it to buy securities backed by student, auto, credit card, and SBA business loans. But this might not be enough to keep small businesses afloat, and the plan to support SMBs is vague and has no start date. Plus, as mentioned above, such measures only encourage the debt bubble to increase.

We are seeing more creative measures from other central bankers.

In the UK, a £350 billion stimulus package includes a government guarantee to pay workers' wages at 80 percent of their pre-corona amount, as well as a £9 billion package to support the self-employed. While the package also involves quantitative easing and the offer of government-backed loans to small businesses, which perpetuates the debt cycle, these steps should help ensure that businesses still exist post-corona and people still have jobs, so the economy can pick up again in a more natural way.

Denmark's ambitious 90-day Temporary Compensation Scheme, moreover, is particularly compelling. Essentially a variant of unemployment insurance, this is "a temporary program of public furlough assistance that allows firms to place workers on paid leaves of absence," as MIT Assistant Professor of Finance Daniel Greenwald describes it.

Greenwald sees this as a great option for the U.S., since "The businesses would be required to maintain each worker's health coverage during the furlough, and return them to employment afterwards." Plus, no incentivized debt and no unnecessary spreading of COVID-19 infection.

As a whole, though, the EU has its hands full. The ECB's €750 billion emergency fund focused on QE measures, promising to buy government bonds to shore up the sovereign and corporate debt that threatens to cripple some economies. The ECB is also offering €3 trillion of liquidity through refinancing operations at -0.75 percent. These steps will probably have disastrous long-term effects on eurozone inflation, but it's difficult to see what else the ECB could have done when Italy and Spain are on their economic knees.

A cure that’s worse than the malady

While the recession we're entering was precipitated by the coronavirus, it was probably inevitable even without the health scare and its domino effect. Interest rate cuts and QE measures are the first weapon of choice for central banks, but they are arguably the true cause of any ongoing economic woes.

Central banks that focus on measures to keep workers in jobs and businesses solvent are taking the right steps to deal with the short-term trauma of corona-induced slowdown, but they may not be able to prevent the long-term fallout of years of a fiscal policy that kept rates low, debt high, and savings non-existent.

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Credit: Olav Ahrens Røtne via Unsplash
Mind & Brain

This article was originally published on Big Think Edge.

Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

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