Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising

The Fed is aggressively raising interest rates, although inflation is contained, private debt is already at 150% of GDP, and rising variable rates could push borrowers into insolvency. So what is driving the Fed’s push to “tighten”?

On March 31st the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate for the sixth time in 3 years and signaled its intention to raise rates twice more in 2018, aiming for a fed funds target of 3.5% by 2020. LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate) has risen even faster than the fed funds rate, up to 2.3% from just 0.3% 2-1/2 years ago. LIBOR is set in London by private agreement of the biggest banks, and the interest on $3.5 trillion globally is linked to it, including $1.2 trillion in consumer mortgages.

Alarmed commentators warn that global debt levels have reached $233 trillion, more than three times global GDP; and that much of that debt is at variable rates pegged either to the Fed’s interbank lending rate or to LIBOR. Raising rates further could push governments, businesses and homeowners over the edge. In its Global Financial Stability report in April 2017, the International Monetary Fund warned that projected interest rises could throw 22% of US corporations into default.

Then there is the US federal debt, which has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up from $9.4 trillion in mid-2008 to over $21 trillion in April 2018. Adding to that debt burden, the Fed has announced that it will be dumping its government bonds acquired through quantitative easing at the rate of $600 billion annually. It will sell $2.7 trillion in federal securities at the rate of $50 billion monthly beginning in October. Along with a government budget deficit of $1.2 trillion, that’s nearly $2 trillion in new government debt that will need financing annually.

If the Fed follows through with its plans, projections are that by 2027, US taxpayers will owe $1 trillion annually just in interest on the federal debt. That is enough to fund President Trump’s original trillion dollar infrastructure plan every year. And it is a direct transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy investors holding most of the bonds. Where will this money come from? Even crippling taxes, wholesale privatization of public assets, and elimination of social services will not cover the bill.

With so much at stake, why is the Fed increasing interest rates and adding to government debt levels? Its proffered justifications don’t pass the smell test.

“Faith-Based” Monetary Policy

In setting interest rates, the Fed relies on a policy tool called the “Phillips curve,” which allegedly shows that as the economy nears full employment, prices rise. The presumption is that workers with good job prospects will demand higher wages, driving prices up. But the Phillips curve has proven virtually useless in predicting inflation, according to the Fed’s own data. Former Fed Chairman Janet Yellen has admitted that the data fails to support the thesis, and so has Fed Governor Lael Brainard. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari calls the continued reliance on the Phillips curve “faith-based” monetary policy. But the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets monetary policy, is undeterred.

“Full employment” is considered to be 4.7% unemployment. When unemployment drops below that, alarm bells sound and the Fed marches into action. The official unemployment figure ignores the great mass of discouraged unemployed who are no longer looking for work, and it includes people working part-time or well below capacity. But the Fed follows models and numbers, and as of April 2018, the official unemployment rate had dropped to 4.3%. Based on its Phillips curve projections, the FOMC is therefore taking steps to aggressively tighten the money supply.

The notion that shrinking the money supply will prevent inflation is based on another controversial model, the monetarist dictum that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon”: inflation is always caused by “too much money chasing too few goods.” That can happen, and it is called “demand-pull” inflation. But much more common historically is “cost-push” inflation: prices go up because producers’ costs go up. And a major producer cost is the cost of borrowing money. Merchants and manufacturers must borrow in order to pay wages before their products are sold, to build factories, buy equipment and expand. Rather than lowering price inflation, the predictable result of increased interest rates will be to drive consumer prices up, slowing markets and increasing unemployment – another Great Recession. Increasing interest rates is supposed to cool an “overheated” economy by slowing loan growth, but lending is not growing today. Economist Steve Keen has shown that at about 150% private debt to GDP, countries and their populations do not take on more debt. Rather, they pay down their debts, contracting the money supply; and that is where we are now.

The Fed’s reliance on the Phillips curve does not withstand scrutiny. But rather than abandoning the model, the Fed cites “transitory factors” to explain away inconsistencies in the data. In a December 2017 article in The Hill, Tate Lacey observed that the Fed has been using this excuse ever since 2012, citing one “transitory factor” after another, from temporary movements in oil prices, to declining import prices and dollar strength, to falling energy prices, to changes in wireless plans and prescription drugs. The excuse is wearing thin.

The Fed also claims that the effects of its monetary policies lag behind the reported data, making the current rate hikes necessary to prevent problems in the future. But as Lacey observes, GDP is not a lagging indicator, and it shows that the Fed’s policy is failing. Over the last two years, leading up to and continuing through the Fed’s tightening cycle, nominal GDP growth averaged just over 3%; while in the two prior years, nominal GDP grew at more than 4%. Thus “the most reliable indicator of the stance of monetary policy, nominal GDP, is already showing the contractionary impact of the Fed’s policy decisions,” says Lacey, “signaling that its plan will result in further monetary tightening, or worse, even recession.”

Follow the Money

If the Phillips curve, the inflation rate and loan growth don’t explain the push for higher interest rates, what does? The answer was suggested in an April 12th Bloomberg article by Yalman Onaran, titled “Surging LIBOR, Once a Red Flag, Is Now a Cash Machine for Banks.”  He wrote:

The largest U.S. lenders could each make at least $1 billion in additional pretax profit in 2018 from a jump in the London interbank offered rate for dollars, based on data disclosed by the companies. That’s because customers who take out loans are forced to pay more as Libor rises while the banks’ own cost of credit has mostly held steady.

During the 2008 crisis, high LIBOR rates meant capital markets were frozen, since the banks’ borrowing rates were too high for them to turn a profit. But US banks are not dependent on the short-term overseas markets the way they were a decade ago. They are funding much of their operations through deposits, and the average rate paid by the largest US banks on their deposits climbed only about 0.1% last year, despite a 0.75% rise in the fed funds rate. Most banks don’t reveal how much of their lending is at variable rates or is indexed to LIBOR, but Oneran comments:

JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest U.S. bank, said in its 2017 annual report that $122 billion of wholesale loans were at variable rates. Assuming those were all indexed to Libor, the 1.19 percentage-point increase in the rate in the past year would mean $1.45 billion in additional income.

Raising the fed funds rate can be the same sort of cash cow for US banks. According to a December 2016 Wall Street Journal article titled “Banks’ Interest-Rate Dreams Coming True”:

While struggling with ultralow interest rates, major banks have also been publishing regular updates on how well they would do if interest rates suddenly surged upward. . . . Bank of America . . . says a 1-percentage-point rise in short-term rates would add $3.29 billion. . . . [A] back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests an incremental $2.9 billion of extra pretax income in 2017, or 11.5% of the bank’s expected 2016 pretax profit . . . .

As observed in an April 12 article on Seeking Alpha:

About half of mortgages are . . . adjusting rate mortgages [ARMs] with trigger points that allow for automatic rate increases, often at much more than the official rate rise. . . .

One can see why the financial sector is keen for rate rises as they have mined the economy with exploding rate loans and need the consumer to get caught in the minefield.

Even a modest rise in interest rates will send large flows of money to the banking sector. This will be cost-push inflationary as finance is a part of almost everything we do, and the cost of business and living will rise because of it for no gain.

Cost-push inflation will drive up the Consumer Price Index, ostensibly justifying further increases in the interest rate, in a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the FOMC will say, “We tried – we just couldn’t keep up with the CPI.”

A Closer Look at the FOMC

The FOMC is composed of the Federal Reserve’s seven-member Board of Governors, the president of the New York Fed, and four presidents from the other 11 Federal Reserve Banks on a rotating basis. All 12 Federal Reserve Banks are corporations, the stock of which is 100% owned by the banks in their districts; and New York is the district of Wall Street. The Board of Governors currently has four vacancies, leaving the member banks in majority control of the FOMC. Wall Street calls the shots; and Wall Street stands to make a bundle off rising interest rates.

The Federal Reserve calls itself “independent,” but it is independent only of government. It marches to the drums of the banks that are its private owners. To prevent another Great Recession or Great Depression, Congress needs to amend the Federal Reserve Act, nationalize the Fed, and turn it into a public utility, one that is responsive to the needs of the public and the economy.


This article was originally published on Ellen Brown is an attorney, chairman of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including Web of Debt and The Public Bank Solution. Her 300+ blog articles are posted at

23 Responses

  1. Inflation is contained ??? LOL

  2. I , Tweeted Trump w/ Excerpts & Send Your

    w/my comments of Seriousness

    All my Best to , Ellen Brown , A True Patriot , Robert Fred Newsom

  3. […] Ellen Brown Writers, Dandelion Salad The Web of Debt Blog April 22, […]

  4. Why, when “government debt” is a savings account for non government investors, which the government NEVER spends [being monetary sovereign] do commentators “Worry” about it??
    After all any deposit you have at your bank is also called a bank debt, but it’s Your savings! Government interest payments also add to savings in the non government sector as well.
    Private sector debt is another problem and it’s sensible to be concerned that it will badly affect the economy, because as mentioned here, People stop spending if their debt loan rises too far. Richard Koo calls this a “balance sheet recession” Spending drives the economy, taxing crimps the economy. Today spending is too low. Employment is too low. These are all worrying signs. Government debt aka “,corporate welfare” is not such a worry. It’s just a sign investors don’t see enough good opportunities for investment so they either go for share buybacks or buy up treasuries. At least they provide some return.

  5. Physics is giving Economists a new clue on Economy’s complex problems:

    No device can generate energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it” – a recently circulating thesis in thermodynamics thought to be overlooked since 1824 when Sadi Carnot has coined the supreme 2nd law of thermodynamics, tunnel-visioned then by the past abundance of coal in Britain.

    No reference to the newly postulated relationship is found in works done by Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx and many others including Keynes – who all were born after Newcommon’s 1712 steam engine has already become the status quo!

  6. Ellenis one of the few writers telling the truth about the Fed.

  7. Reblogged this on amnesiaclinic and commented:
    Excellent analysis. Please raise these points with your elected representatives and help to bring in the change.
    Highly recommended.

  8. whatever it is, the fed and its banks don’t have much time left even they can accumulate trillions of dollars. as soon as interest rate goes up higher, stock markets crash and maybe economic collapse, millions of pensioners’ savings get crush, the people will pour out on the streets to rebels. at that time, american people will find out: who is responsible, then american people will uproot the fed, wallstreet and demand change.

  9. It’s about time. These low rates are nothing more than a gift to speculators and traders at the expense of people that need interest based income.

  10. […] Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising […]

  11. […] Few appreciate why central banks have been so committed to enabling banks and excessive debt creation.  The truth is that our financial demise is baked into their design.  See Fox in the Hen House:  Why interest rates are rising: […]

  12. – Sheer nonsense. The FED follows – I repeat – FOLLOWS the 3 months T-bill rate. And the 3 months T-bill rate is determined by a force called Mr. Market.

    • “A force”? Finance is not physics, and anthropomorphizing does no good. Certain private individuals and groups are in control and have responsibility. Calling them “the market” is a cop-out and false-to-fact.

      • – These “private individuals and groups” are also well known as “investors”.
        – In recessions investors pull their money out of stocks and bonds and invest them in something that carries the least price risk and that are 3-month T-bills.
        – In good times investors pull their money out of those T-bills and invest it into higher yielding instruments e.g. stocks and bonds. And then the 3 month T-bill rates rises.
        – The USD is the world’s reserve currency and A LOT OF countries are holding USD & US T-bonds. and Mr. E. Brown thinks that a bunch of wonks at the FED are able to manipulate/determine interest (US) rates ?

  13. – Interest rates were bound to rise after falling for 35 (!!) years. E.g the US 10 year yield peaked at over 15% in 1981.

  14. […] ⇧   Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising […]

  15. I can see this all ending badly, and a similar though less aggressive story is playing out in the UK

  16. […] Posted on April 22, 2018 by Ellen Brown […]

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