Published December 17, 2015

Is the “Easy Money Era” Over?

It finally happened.

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve raised its key interest rate for the first time in nearly a decade.

Dispatch readers know the Fed dropped interest rates to effectively zero during the 2008 financial crisis. It has held rates at effectively zero ever since…an unprecedented policy that has warped the financial markets.

Rock bottom interest rates make it extremely cheap to borrow money. Over the last seven years, Americans have borrowed trillions of dollars to buy cars, stocks, houses, and commercial property. This has pushed many prices to all-time highs. U.S. stock prices, for example, have tripled since 2009.

•  The Fed raised its key rate by 0.25%...

U.S. stocks rallied on the news, surprising many investors. The S&P 500 and NASDAQ both gained 1.5% yesterday.

The Fed plans to continue raising rates next year. It’s targeting a rate of 1.38% by the end of 2016.

So…is this the beginning of the end of the “easy money era?”

For historical perspective, here’s a chart showing the Fed’s key rate going back to 1995. As you can see, yesterday’s rate hike was tiny. The key rate is still far below its long-term average of 5.0%.

Josh Brown, writer of the financial website The Reformed Broker, put the Fed’s rate hike in perspective.

The overnight borrowing rate…has now risen from “around zero” to “basically zero.”

In other words, interest rates are still extremely low, and borrowing is still extremely cheap. We’re not ready to call the end of easy money yet.

•  Cheap money has goosed the commercial property market…

Commercial property prices have surged 93% since bottoming in 2009. Prices are now 16% higher than their 2007 peak, according to research firm Real Capital Analytics.

Borrowed money has been fueling this hot market. According to the Fed, the value of commercial property loans held by banks is now $1.76 trillion, an all-time high.

The apartment market is especially frothy today. Apartment prices have more than doubled since November 2009. U.S. apartment prices are now 34% above their 2007 peak.

•  Sam Zell is cashing out of commercial property…

Zell is a real estate mogul and self-made billionaire. He made a fortune buying property for pennies on the dollar during recessions in the 1970s and 1990s.

It pays to watch what Zell is buying and selling. He was one of few real estate gurus to spot the last property bubble and get out before it popped. In February 2007, Zell sold $23 billion worth of office properties. Nine months later, U.S. commercial property prices peaked and went on to plunge 42%.

Recently, Zell has started selling again. In October, Zell’s company sold 23,000 apartment units, about one quarter of its portfolio. The deal was valued at $5.4 billion, making it one of the largest property deals since the financial crisis. The company plans to sell 4,700 more units in 2016.

Yesterday, Zell told Bloomberg Business that “it is very hard not to be a seller” with the “pricing currently available in the commercial real estate market.”

Recent stats from the commercial property market have been ugly. In the third quarter, commercial property transactions fell 6.5% from a year ago. Transaction volume also fell 24% between the second quarter and third quarter., the largest online real estate marketplace, said economic growth is hurting the market.

Both commercial real estate transaction volume and pricing have showed signs of softening over the past few months…

It’s likely that what we’re seeing is the result of reduced capital spending due to some weakness in the U.S. economy, coupled with a highly volatile economic climate in China and ongoing financial issues in Europe.

•  Zell is bearish on the U.S. economy…

On Bloomberg yesterday, he predicted that the U.S. will have a recession by the end of 2016.

I think that there’s a high probability that we’re looking at a recession in the next twelve months.

A recession is when a country’s economy shrinks two quarters in a row. The U.S. economy hasn’t had a recession in six years. Instead, it’s been limping through its weakest recovery since World War II.

Zell continued to say that the U.S. economy faces many challenges.

World trade is slowing. Currencies continue to be manipulated. You’re looking at the beginnings of layoffs in multinational companies. We’re still looking all over the world for demand…

So, when you look at those factors it’s hard to see where strength is going to come from. I think weakness is going to be pervasive.

Like Zell, we see tough economic times ahead. To prepare, we suggest you hold a significant amount of cash and physical gold. We put together a short video presentation with other strategies for how to protect your money in an economic downturn. Click here to watch.

Chart of the Day

The U.S. economy is in an “industrial recession”…

In recent editions of the Dispatch, we’ve told you that major American manufacturers are struggling to make money. For example, sales for global machinery maker Caterpillar (CAT) have declined 35 months in a row. In October, CAT’s global sales dropped by 16%...its worst sales decline since February 2010.

Today’s chart shows the yearly growth in U.S. industrial production. The bars on the chart below indicate recessions.

Last month, U.S. industrial production declined -1.17% from the prior year. It marked the 19th time since 1920 that industrial output dropped from a positive reading to a reading of -1.1% or worse.

15 of the last 18 times this happened – or 83% of the time – the U.S. economy went into recession.


Justin Spittler
Delray Beach, Florida
December 17, 2015

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