Will Rising Rates Derail the Economy?

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At 228Main.com, we are voracious readers and consumers of information. Nothing happens in a vacuum. We therefore pay attention to the economy, the markets, and our holdings, as well as look for potential opportunities to invest. Recently it was time to sort out what it all might mean.

Rising interest rates, long expected here, have caught our attention. Home mortgage rates are at a seven year high1, and other consumer borrowing rates have increased as well. If we spend more on interest payments, we have less to spend on other goods and services.

We investigated, and learned that total household debt payments actually remain near the lowest point in many decades, although they are rising. But the total debt balances are at record highs, above the level reached before the 2008 credit crisis. What gives?

The answer is in the interest rates. Higher debt levels financed at lower rates have reduced our payments as a percent of income. If loan interest rates continue to rise, however, we will probably see more household income go to payments on debt.

There is another piece of income that doesn’t get spent: our savings rate. When we feel confident about the future and our 401(k)’s and other investments are growing, we tend to save less. When the outlook darkens, we tend to save more.

Our savings rate declined from 6% of disposable income at the end of the last recession to the 3% neighborhood now. Historically, it has been slightly lower at times—but we are probably close to the bottom.

The amount we spend is what is left after debt payments and savings—and one more thing: taxes. Taxes, like the other factors, seem to be at relatively low levels now—not likely to go lower. The 2017 tax reform cut levels sharply.

We believe it is likely that record amounts of debt face rising rates in the years ahead; our savings rate will rise sooner or later; and there is no more room to cut taxes. The net effect of these three things seems likely to eventually reduce consumer spending, which is an important driver of the overall economy.

We do not think we are on the verge of recession. Other indicators point to continued growth. But we are in the middle or later stages of the growth cycle—not the beginning. We are looking at opportunities that fit the times, as always.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else, please email us or call.

1All data from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/. Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Accessed May 22nd, 2018

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.