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Chart: The Downward Spiral in Interest Rates

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During the onset of an economic crisis, national governments are thought to have two chief policy tools at their disposal:

  1. Fiscal Policy
    How the central government collects money through taxation, and how it spends that money
  2. Monetary Policy
    How central banks choose to manage the supply of money and interest rates

Major fiscal policy changes can take time to be implemented — but since central banks can make moves unilaterally, monetary policy is often the first line of defense in settling markets.

As the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, central banks have been quick to act in slashing interest rates. However, with rates already sitting at historic lows before the crisis, it is possible that banks may be forced to employ more unconventional and controversial techniques to try and calm the economy as time goes on.

The Fed: Firing at Will

The most meaningful rate cuts happened on March 3rd and March 15th after emergency meetings in the United States.

First, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cut the target rate from 1.5% to 1.0% — and then on Sunday (March 15th) the rate got chopped by an entire percentage point to rub up against the lower bound of zero.

Fed rate cuts historical

As you can see on the chart, this puts us back into familiar territory: a policy environment analogous to that seen during the recovery from the financial crisis.

ZIRP or NIRP?

It’s been awhile, but with interest rates again bumping up against the lower bound, you’ll begin to see discussions pop up again about the effectiveness of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and even negative interest rate policy (NIRP).

Although the latter has been used by some European banks in recent years, NIRP has never been experimented with in the United States or Canada.

Here’s a quick primer on both:

NIRP and ZIRP

With rates sitting at zero, it’s not impossible for the Fed and other central banks to begin toying more seriously with the idea of negative rates. Such a move would be bold, but also seen as highly experimental and risky with unforeseen consequences.

Global Rate Slashing

Since only the beginning of March, the world’s central banks have cut interest rates on 37 separate occasions.

The only exception to this rule was the National Bank of Kazakhstan, which raised its key rate by 2.75% to support its currency in light of current oil prices. Even so, the Kazakhstani tenge has lost roughly 15% of its value against the U.S. dollar since February.

Here’s a look at cumulative interest rate cuts by some of the world’s most important central banks, from January 1, 2020 until today:

Central Bank Moves YTD

Going into the year, rates in developed economies were already between 0% and 2%.

Despite not having much room to work with, banks have slashed rates where they can — and now out of major developed economies, Canada has the “highest” interest rate at just 0.75%.

Helicopters on the Horizon

With central banks running out of ammo for the use of traditional measures, the conversation is quickly shifting to unconventional measures such as “helicopter money” and NIRP.

Life is already surreal as societal measures to defend against the spread of COVID-19 unfold; pretty soon, monetary measures taken around the globe may seem just as bizarre.

Put another way, unless something changes fast and miraculously, we could be moving into an unprecedented monetary environment where up is down, and down is up. At that point, it’s anybody’s guess as to how things will shake out going forward.

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Markets

Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber prices in the U.S. continue to break records as pressure from both the supply and demand sides of the market collide.

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Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber is an important commodity used in construction, and refers to wood that has been processed into beams or planks.

Fluctuations in its price, which is typically quoted in USD/1,000 board feet (bd ft), can significantly affect the housing industry and in turn, influence the broader U.S. economy.

To understand the impact that lumber prices can have, we’ve visualized the number of homes that can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber, one year apart.

A Story of Supply and Demand

Before discussing the infographic above, it’s important to understand the market’s current environment.

In just one year, the price of lumber has increased 377%—reaching a record high of $1,635 per 1,000 bd ft. For context, lumber has historically fluctuated between $200 to $400.

To understand what’s driving lumber prices to new heights, let’s look at two economic elements: supply and demand.

Shortened Supply

U.S. lumber supplies came under pressure in April 2017, when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Canadian lumber. Since then, lumber imports have fallen and prices have experienced significant volatility.

After a brief stint above $600 in April 2018, lumber quickly tumbled down to sub $250 levels, causing a number of sawmills to shut down. The resulting decreases in production capacity (supply) were estimated to be around 3 billion board feet.

Once COVID-19 emerged, labor shortages cut production even further, making the lumber market incredibly sensitive to demand shocks. The U.S. government has since reduced its tariffs on Canadian lumber, but these measures appear to be an example of too little, too late.

Pent-up Demand

Against expectations, COVID-19 has led to a significant boom in housing markets, greatly increasing the need for lumber.

Lockdowns in early 2020 delayed many home purchases until later in the year, while increased savings rates during the pandemic meant Americans had more cash on hand. The demand for homes was further amplified by record-low mortgage rates across the country.

Existing homeowners needed lumber too, as many Americans suddenly found themselves requiring upgrades and renovations to accommodate their new stay-at-home lifestyles.

How Many Homes Can You Build With $50K of Lumber?

To see how burgeoning lumber prices are impacting the U.S. housing market, we’ve calculated the number of single family homes that could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. First, we established the following parameters:

  • Lumber requirements: 6.3 board feet (bd ft) per square foot (sq ft)
  • Median single family house size: 2,301 sq ft
  • Total lumber required per single family house: 14,496 bd ft

Based on these parameters, here’s how many single family homes can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber:

Date*Lumber PriceTotal Lumber PurchasedTotal Homes Built
2021-05-05$1,635 per 1,000 bd ft30,581 bd ft2.11
2020-05-04$343 per 1,000 bd ft145,773 bd ft10.05
2015-05-01$234 per 1,000 bd ft213,675 bd ft14.74
2010-05-01$270 per 1,000 bd ft185,185 bd ft12.77

*Exact matching dates were not available for past years.
Source: Insider

As lumber prices continue to set record highs, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported that the cost to build a single family home has increased by $36,000. Most of this cost can be passed down to the consumer, but extremely tight supplies mean homebuilders are unable to start more projects.

The Clock is Ticking

Despite their best efforts to increase output, it’s likely that sawmills across the U.S. will continue playing catch-up in 2021.

“There was a great fear among sawmills to prepare for a downturn. When home buying surged, they could not open up capacity quickly enough.”
– Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors

Analysts are now warning that lumber prices could reach a flashpoint, where affordability becomes so limited that demand suddenly falls off. This has led the NAHB to ask the Biden administration for a temporary pause on Canadian lumber tariffs, which currently sit at 9%.

U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber were first introduced in 1982, and represent one of the longest lasting trade wars between the two nations. The U.S. is currently appealing a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that states its 2017 tariff hike was a breach of global trading rules.

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Markets

Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America

Compared to January 2020, 34% of small businesses are currently closed. This map looks at the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas.

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Mapped: The State of Small Business Recovery in America

In the business news cycle, headlines are often dominated by large corporations, macroeconomic news, or government action.

While mom and pop might not always be in focus, collectively small businesses are a powerful and influential piece of the economy. In fact, 99.9% of all businesses in the U.S. qualify as small businesses, collectively employing almost half (47.3%) of the nation’s private workforce.

Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy amid the pandemic. From the CARES Act to the new budget proposal, billions of dollars have been allocated towards helping small businesses to get back on their feet.

Small Business Recovery in 50 Metro Areas

During the pandemic, many small businesses have either swiftly pivoted to survive, or struggled to stay afloat. This map pulls data from Opportunity Insights to examine the small business recovery rate in 50 metro areas across America.

So, has the situation improved since the last time we examined this data? The short answer is no—on a national scale, 34% of small businesses are closed compared to January 2020.

San Francisco is one of the most affected metro areas, with a 48% closure rate of small businesses. New York City has spiralled the most since the end of September 2020.

U.S. Metro Area% Change in # of
Small Businesses Open
(As of Sep 25, 2020)
% Change in # of
Small Businesses Open
(As of Apr 23, 2021)
7-month change (p.p.)
Albuquerque-23%-34%-11
Atlanta-26%-35%-9
Austin-32%-38%-6
Bakersfield-31%-35%-4
Baltimore-28%-35%-7
Boston-33%-47%-14
Charlotte-18%-28%-10
Chicago-27%-38%-11
Cleveland-26%-34%-8
Colorado Springs-23%-28%-5
Columbus-21%-28%-7
Dallas-Fort Worth-21%-28%-7
Denver-25%-29%-4
Detroit-28%-38%-10
El Paso-25%-26%-1
Fresno-26%-30%-4
Honolulu-41%-25%+16
Houston-30%-34%-4
Indianapolis-25%-34%-9
Jacksonville-18%-28%-10
Kansas City-15%-26%-11
Las Vegas-22%-30%-8
Los Angeles-27%-34%-7
Louisville-23%-35%-12
Memphis-21%-24%-3
Miami-23%-34%-11
Milwaukee-22%-27%-5
Minneapolis-21%-29%-8
Nashville-21%-26%-5
New Orleans-45%-39%+6
New York City-21%-42%-21
Oakland-32%-35%-3
Oklahoma City-26%-35%-9
Philadelphia-24%-31%-7
Phoenix-19%-31%-12
Portland-34%-36%-2
Raleigh-16%-29%-13
Sacramento-33%-34%-1
Salt Lake City-18%-23%-5
San Antonio-34%-40%-6
San Diego-28%-38%-10
San Francisco-49%-48%+2
San Jose-35%-44%-9
Seattle-28%-30%-2
Tampa-22%-40%-18
Tucson-27%-28%-1
Tulsa-23%-32%-9
Virginia Beach--36%0
Washington DC-37%-47%-10
Wichita-15%-28%-13

Data as of Apr 23, 2021 and indexed to Jan 4-31, 2020.

On the flip side, Honolulu has seen the most improvement. As travel and tourism numbers into Hawaii have steadily risen up with lifted nationwide restrictions, there has been a 16 p.p. increase in open businesses compared to September 2020.

Road to a K-Shaped Recovery

As of April 25, 2021, nearly 42% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, even with this rapid vaccine rollout, various segments of the economy aren’t recovering at the same pace.

Take for instance the stark difference between professional services and the leisure and hospitality sector. Though small business revenues in both segments have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the latter has much more catching up to do:

Small Business Recovery Supplemental - Business Revenues

This uneven phenomena is known as a K-shaped recovery, where some industries see more improvement compared to others that stagnate in the aftermath of a recession.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit Endures

Despite these continued hardships, it appears that many Americans have not been deterred from starting their own businesses.

Many small businesses require an Employer Identification Number (EIN) which makes EIN applications a good proxy for business formation activity. Despite an initial dip in the early months of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic spike in EIN business applications.

ein business applications

Even in the face of a global pandemic, the perseverance of such metrics prove that the innovative American spirit is unwavering, and spells better days to come for small business recovery.

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