A mega-economic story is playing out globally. It involves U.S. interest rates, the Chinese stock market and jobs in Minnesota, Arizona and North Dakota.
And your wallet, too.
No kidding – it’s all related. To see how, let your mind wander back.
Start by recalling where the U.S. housing market was a decade ago. In 2005, lenders were offering low “teaser” interest rates on mortgages. Many people bought homes that way, figuring they’d enjoy the initial low rates for a few years. And when the bargain rates expired, they could adapt to the higher payments, or if not, flip the house to another buyer.
But it didn’t work out that way. In 2006, home prices started to stall. Many homeowners wanted to bail out of their mortgages but couldn’t: The supply of houses suddenly was greater than demand.
Now reflect on the response from the Federal Reserve. In 2007, it started slashing interest rates, hoping that ever-lower rates would encourage businesses to expand and borrowers to refinance. Other central banks followed suit.
We’ve been there ever since. Year after year, the Fed has been allowing borrowers to get loans at historically low interest rates.
Here’s where this connects to China.
At the very time interest rates were falling, China was stepping up construction of roads, railroads, ports, apartment buildings, power plants, etc. That created a surge in demand for commodities, such as copper, aluminum, coal, iron ore and oil. And with those projects under way, Chinese workers could afford more food, driving up demand for grains and meat.
Commodity producers all over the world figured they had a great opportunity. With low interest rates, they could afford expansions, so they opened new mines, planted more crops and drilled for more oil.
And for a while, it all worked beautifully because China was soaking up the commodities. In 2010, China’s growth rate was 10.6 percent.
But it turns out, China was offering commodity producers a sort of “teaser” demand — good for a few years, but not sustainable over many years.
So Chinese growth started cooling, down to around 7 percent, at the very time when all of those cheap loans were allowing commodity producers to flood the world with metals and foods.
Now worries about China’s economic outlook are growing as its stock market takes big plunges. Its benchmark stock index has lost 10 percent of its value in just the past two days of trading.
Of course there are factors beyond China pushing down on commodities. Europe also slowed, more efficient cars reduced the need for gas, and power companies lowered their use of coal.
Taken all together, those factors and others have left the world with too much supply, too little demand — and plunging prices for goods and foods sold in bulk. For example, oil was roughly $100 a barrel at this time last year; now it’s less than half that. Bloomberg’s industrial metals index is down more than 25 percent from last summer. Corn that had been selling at nearly $8.50 a bushel in the summer of 2012 is now about $3.70.
So where are we going from here?
The Federal Reserve may soon nudge up interest rates to more normal levels. For commodity producers, the coming higher rates, combined with lower prices, may kill off any expansion plans. In Minnesota, iron ore miners have been laid off; in Arizona, copper miners face uncertain times and in oil fields, many workers have been sent home.
But for consumers, the shift to cheaper commodities has been good news. One example: AAA, the auto club, says drivers are paying an average of about $2.70 a gallon for gasoline, compared with $3.52 one year ago.
These forces will continue to shape the global economy but in different ways: now rising interest rates may prompt investors to shift money away from commodities and stocks and into safer, increasingly attractive alternatives such as Treasury bonds. In any case, China and the United States will continue to push and pull on each other, with one economy having a huge impact on the other.