Hoisington Quarterly Review and Outlook, Q1 2017

Fed Tightening Cycles – Past and Present

The Federal Reserve has initiated the fifteenth tightening cycle since 1945 (Chart 1). Conspicuously, in 80% of the prior fourteen episodes, recessions followed, with outright business contractions being avoided in just three cases. What is notable today is that the economy is in the 93rd month of this expansion, a length of time that is well beyond periods in prior expansions where soft landings occurred (1968, 1984 and 1995). This is relevant because the pent-up demand from the prior downturn has been exhausted; thus, the economy is extremely vulnerable to a shock, which could lead to recession. Regardless of whether there was an associated recession, the last ten cycles of tightening all triggered financial crises. In conjunction with the non-monetary determinants of economic activity (referred to as initial conditions), monetary restraint served to expose over-leveraged parties and, in turn, financial crises ensued.

Four important considerations exist today that were not present in past cycles and that may magnify the current restraining actions of the Federal Reserve:

  1. The Fed has initiated a tightening cycle at a time when significant differences exist in the initial conditions compared to the initial conditions in prior cycles. Additionally, the Fed is tightening into a deteriorating economy with last year’s growth in nominal GDP worse than in any of the prior fourteen cases.
  2. Business and government balance sheets are burdened with record amounts of debt. This means that small changes in interest rates may have an outsized impact on investment and spending decisions.
  3. Previous Federal Reserve experiments, primarily the periods of quantitative easings, have led to an unprecedented balance sheet (an action of “grand design”) to which the economy has grown accustomed. The resulting reduction in that balance sheet (reduction in the monetary base) may have a more profound impact on growth than anticipated.
  4. The monetary base reduction and the impact of the changing regulatory landscape, both in the U.S. and globally, has meant a significant increase in the amount of liquid reserves that banks are required to hold. Liquidity may have already been sharply restrained by the lowering of the monetary base, despite its massive $3.8 trillion size. This is evident as the monetary and credit aggregates are following the expected deteriorating pattern resulting from monetary restraint, suggesting recessionary conditions may lie ahead.