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美元超低利率时代终结

Era of Low Interest Rates of US Dollar Ends

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核心提示:美联储(Federal Reserve)数年来把利率维持在超低水平。这可能确实帮助美国经济恢复了生机,也对华尔街起到了提振作用,但却并没有解决像波特尔大桥(Portal Bridge)老化这样的问题。

美联储(Federal Reserve)数年来把利率维持在超低水平。这可能确实帮助美国经济恢复了生机,也对华尔街起到了提振作用,但却并没有解决像波特尔大桥(Portal Bridge)老化这样的问题。

这座105年历史的铁路桥位于新泽西州北部,数十年来,它给出入纽约的通勤者造成了不少延误。“我们早就期待有一座新桥,现在是时候让它退休了,”美铁(Amtrak)执行副总裁斯蒂芬·加德纳(Stephen Gardner)说。该公司的列车需要经过这座桥。

修建新桥的费用估计在10亿美元左右,而这个数目金融市场可以在转眼之间为私人企业筹集到。然而,尽管联邦政府和新泽西州可以用最低利率借款,这笔费用依然没有着落。

全美各地有很多这样亟需的基础设施,对我们是个很好的提醒:美国经济存在一些更深层次的问题,而美联储的宽松货币政策并没能解决它们。

“在投资方面,无论是公共还是私人投资,我们都和应有的状况存在差距,”威廉姆·A·高尔斯顿(William A. Galston)说。他曾是比尔·克林顿总统(Bill Clinton)的顾问,目前在布鲁金斯学会(Brookings Institution)担任高级研究员。

高尔斯顿特别惋惜的是,最近几年未能组建一个由政府支持的基础设施投资银行。“这是错失良机,”他说。

据富国银行资本管理公司(Wells Capital Management)的詹姆斯·W·保尔森(James W. Paulsen)分析,公共投资支出在整体经济活动中所占的份额已下降到40年代以来的最低点。

当然,政治僵局也是拦路石,让资金无法流入旨在改善老化的道路、桥梁和公共交通设施的政府项目。但即使是在私营部门,低成本借贷本来应该带来的很多好处也没能实现。

近年来,企业通过各种市场筹集了数以万亿计的美元,但它们投入到新业务上的资金却相对少得可怜。这些投资本来有可能促进就业,提升美国公司的效率和全球竞争力。

从某些方面来看,这些都是低成本借贷时期被浪费掉的机会——而且,美联储本周三的加息决议把接近于零的基准利率小幅升高,虽然贷款成本起初的升幅会较小,但这样的机会很可能还是会被继续浪费。

美联储的刺激政策在很多方面都发挥了效果。它们推动了银行和投资者放贷、提升了股价,也提振了消费者和首席执行官们的信心。美国经济最终恢复了元气,让失业率下降了,汽车销量增加了,房价也有所回暖。

但是一些重要指标显示,这些资金并没有流向一些需要的地方。经济学者和分析师指出,要改善美国经济的长期发展潜力,这些地方需有资金投入。

企业可能并没有好好利用美联储慷慨提供的超低利率。从理论上说,低利率可以刺激企业借入资金,把它们投入到新设备和技术上,从而提高运营效率。这样的投资能够改善盈利能力,增加公司在全球市场上的竞争力。

然而自本轮大衰退以来,企业投资在国内生产总值中的比例一直处于历史低位。美联储降息之后,垃圾债券市场的规模出现了大幅扩张。发行垃圾债券的公司近来在借款上养成的一些习惯,显示出投资出人意料的匮乏程度。

用美银美林(Bank of America Merrill Lynch)的数据进行的分析显示,从2009年到今年9月,美国公司发行这种债券所筹集的资金中,仅有2%的收益用在了资本性支出上。虽然该行的分析师指出,资本性支出的数字可能无法囊括所有的投资,但从这些数据来看,通过发行债券筹集的资金中,最大的份额被用在了偿还公司所欠的其他债务,以及开展普通收购和杠杆收购行动上。

“很少被用作资本性支出,”美银美林负责高收益及杠杆融资策略的主管迈克尔·孔托普洛斯(Michael Contopoulos)说。“我们觉得这是个大问题。”

企业投资缺乏,可能会抑制美国未来的经济增长速度。更高的资本性支出本可提高生产率。这是一个至关重要的经济指标,可以衡量出一个经济体用劳动力和资金等资源可以产出多少东西。但最近几年,美国生产率增长速度放缓,这让经济学者颇为不安。

矛盾的是,低利率有可能抑制了能让企业变得更加高效的力量。在2014年发表的一次重要演讲中,前财政部长、现任哈佛大学教授的劳伦斯·H·萨默斯(Lawrence H. Summers)列举了日本的情况,后者的利率在很长一段时间内处在低水平。

“在利率为零或很低的时期,借贷展期非常容易,”他说。“所以没有什么压力来对效率低下乃至变为僵尸的企业进行重组。”

美联储现在提高利率,有可能会促使美国企业界进入一个剧变的阶段。垃圾债券市场最近出现的动荡显示,投资者认为将出现破产现象,尤其是在能源行业。今天的短痛可能会带来某种长期的改变,而这种改变将使美国经济变得更加强健。相反地,如果银行和债券投资者在借贷上削减太多,美国经济则有可能因此受挫。

不过,尽管利率似乎正在升高,一些经济学者仍然表示,还有另一种比较乐观的可能性。

按照这一理论,生产率之所以在经济危机后的数年里持续低下,是因为高失业率打压了劳动力成本,从而让企业更容易维持利润。“雇主在提高效率方面可能就会相当懈怠,”奥巴马总统经济顾问团队的前成员、目前在预算与政策重点中心(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)任高级研究员的杰瑞德·伯恩斯坦(Jared Bernstein)说。“因为可以很容易从劳动力成本里挤出油水来。”

按照上述逻辑,如今随着失业率下降,企业可能要为获得人才而展开更多竞争,这就有可能会推高员工的薪水。面对升高的劳动力成本,企业将不得不进行投资,以提高效率。“你需要的是一个企业无法以低效率生存的经济和劳动力市场,”伯恩斯坦说。

然而,随着利率上升,美国公路和铁路能否获得建设资金大概依然会存在不确定性。

如果经济持续增长,财政压力得到缓解,联邦、州和市政府可能会有更多资金进行基础设施建设,哪怕面临着更高的借贷成本。

但一些民主党人士期待的规模可观的投资看起来并不会出现。很多共和党人坚称,基础设施需求被过度夸大,而且应该由私营部门,而非纳税人在其中贡献更多力量。

本月,国会克服了两党在意识形态上的差异,通过了一项金额约3000亿美元的交通议案,将为公路和桥梁建设提供资金。

这项议案碰巧包含一些措施,可以使得为建设新的波特尔大桥和哈德逊地下隧道进行的融资变得更加容易。被飓风“桑迪”(Sandy)损坏的几条隧道,在今年7月曾导致长时间的延误,引起一些通勤者的强烈抗议。

任何重建工程都会比原先计划的时间长得多,费用也要多得多。但倡导进行市政工程的人士认为,尽管这项交通议案还是不能满足整体需求,但它值得鼓励。

“我比较乐观,已经出现很大的进步,”美铁公司的高管加德纳说。“作为一项议题,基础设施开始被人们重新考虑了。”(中国进出口网

Years of ultralow interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve may have breathed life back into the economy and buoyed Wall Street. But they have not managed to solve problems like the aging Portal Bridge.

The 105-year-old railway bridge in northern New Jersey has for decades caused delays for commuters in and out of New York. “We have long desired the bridge’s replacement,” said Stephen Gardner, an executive vice president for Amtrak, whose trains use the bridge. “It’s time for it to retire.”

A replacement bridge would cost an estimated $1 billion, the sort of sum that financial markets can raise for a private corporation in the blink of an eye. Yet even though the federal government and the state of New Jersey can borrow at rock-bottom rates, the overhaul remains unfunded.

There are many such infrastructure projects needed around the country, providing a stark reminder of the deeper problems in the economy that the Fed’s easy-money policies have not been able to fix.

“We are not where we should be when it comes to investment, public or private,” said William A. Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Galston in particular lamented the failure to set up a government-backed infrastructure bank in recent years. “This will go down as one of the great missed opportunities,” he said.

Public investment spending as a share of overall economic activity has fallen to lows not seen since the 1940s, according to an analysis by James W. Paulsen of Wells Capital Management.

Political impasses have, of course, restricted the flow of money into government projects aimed at improving aging roads, bridges and mass transit. But even in the private sector, many of the hoped-for benefits of low-cost borrowing have not occurred.

Corporations have tapped the markets for trillions of dollars in recent years, yet they plowed relatively little of the money into new operations. Such investments might have bolstered hiring and made American business more efficient and globally competitive.

In some ways, these are the wasted opportunities of the cheap-money years — and they may well remain squandered now that the cost of borrowing appears to be heading higher, even if the initial increases after the Fed’s decision Wednesday to move its benchmark up from close to zero will remain modest.

The Fed’s stimulus policies worked in many ways. They prompted banks and investors to lend, lifted stock prices and bolstered the confidence of consumers and chief executives. The economy eventually regained strength, causing unemployment to fall, auto sales to take off and house prices to rise somewhat.

But important indicators suggest that the money did not flow where some economists and analysts say it is needed to improve the long-term potential of the economy.

Corporations may not have made the most of the Fed’s largess. In theory, low interest rates should spur companies to borrow money that they then invest in new machines and technology that will make their operations more efficient. These investments can improve profitability and make firms more competitive in global markets.

But business investment as a percentage of gross domestic product has remained below historical levels since the Great Recession. A surprising lack of investment also shows up in the recent borrowing habits of companies that issue junk bonds, a market that ballooned after the Fed cut interest rates.

From 2009 through September of this year, United States companies issuing such bonds spent a mere 2 percent of the proceeds of those bonds on capital expenditures, or “capex,” according to an analysis of data provided by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The capital expenditures figures may not capture all investment, the bank’s analysts noted. Even so, the data shows that the lion’s share of bond proceeds went to pay off other debt owed by the companies and to finance acquisitions and leveraged buyouts.

“Very little of it has been used for capex,” said Michael Contopoulos, head of United States high-yield and leveraged loan strategy at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “We think that’s a big problem.”

The lack of corporate investment may hold back the United States’ growth rate in the future. Higher capital expenditures might have bolstered productivity, a crucial economic yardstick that measures how much an economy produces with resources like labor and capital. Growth in productivity has slowed in recent years, disturbing economists.

Paradoxically, it is possible that the low interest rates have held back forces that would have made companies more efficient. In an influential speech in 2014, Lawrence H. Summers, a former Treasury Secretary and now a professor at Harvard, cited the experience of Japan, where interest rates have been low for a long time.

“In a period of zero interest rates or very low interest rates, it is very easy to roll over loans,” he said. ”And therefore there is very little pressure to restructure inefficient or even zombie enterprises.”

The Fed’s higher interest rates may now usher in a period of upheaval in corporate America. Recent turmoil in the junk bond market suggests that investors expect bankruptcies, particularly in the energy sector. And the pain today may create the sort of longer-term changes that would make the economy stronger. Conversely, if banks and bond investors cut back too much on lending, the economy could suffer.

But even as interest rates appear to be heading higher, some economists say there is an optimistic, alternative possibility.

Under this theory, productivity was weak in the years after the crisis because high unemployment kept labor costs depressed, giving companies an easy way to maintain margins. “Employers can be pretty sloppy in terms of efficiency,” said Jared Bernstein, a former member of President Obama’s economic team and now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It’s not hard to squeeze the heck out of labor costs.”

Now, as unemployment has fallen, companies may compete more for workers, potentially pushing up wages. Confronted with higher labor costs, companies will have no choice but to invest to become more efficient, the theory goes. “You want an economy and labor market where firms can’t afford to be inefficient,” Mr. Bernstein said.

Question marks, however, will most likely continue to hang over the country’s roads and railways as interest rates rise.

If the economy continues to grow and fiscal pressures ease, the federal government, state and cities may find more to spend on infrastructure even if they face higher borrowing costs.

But the substantial investment that some Democrats are hoping for seems improbable. Many Republicans assert that the infrastructure needs are overstated and that the private sector, rather than the taxpayer, needs to play a much greater role.

Congress overcame ideological differences this month to pass a roughly $300 billion transportation bill that provides funding for roads and bridges.

The bill happens to contain measures that could make it easier to secure funding for replacing the Portal Bridge, as well as building new tunnels under the Hudson. The existing tunnels, damaged by Hurricane Sandy, were the cause of long delays in July that caused an outcry among commuters.

Any rebuilding will take longer and cost much more than earlier plans. But advocates for public works, while saying the transportation bill falls short of the overall needs, nonetheless see reason to be encouraged.

“I’m optimistic; there’s been big strides made,” Mr. Gardner, the Amtrak official, said. “Infrastructure is starting to creep back into people’s minds as an issue.”

 

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