Money wasn't always this complicated. In primitive times, when dogs' teeth were employed to settle accounts, conducting business was a lot less perilous. Now, though, almost no one fully fathoms money in all its dimensions -- how it's created, why its supply is so variable, whether to standardize it, how to prevent it from losing value or from becoming too "hard," and so on.
One of today's outstanding pecuniary puzzles is the cause of the ups and downs of interest rates -- the price of money use. It is a price unlike other prices, perplexingly removed from the ordinary rule of supply and demand. Indeed, using money to earn more money, a relatively recent economic device, is an enigma. Even now we still can't decide whether or not it is proper to tax profits on invested capital; to hedge our position, we distinguish between gains made in less than or more than a year. We have not quite come to grips with the idea that money work is not human labor.
The rental of money is still a developing enterprise; we have only lately begun to remove usury laws from the books. Where once society deemed it criminal to charge more than a token amount to use someone else's money as if it were our own, today no one goes to jail for jacking up broker loan rates 2 1/2 points in a single day. Rather, it's society that gets punished: The stock market plunges. And, a radical turn away from the notion of interest, deep-discount couponless "bonds" have recently been marketed, by which the borrower settles for less up-front cash in return for not having to service the debt. The instruments are merely redeemed at par on maturity.
Any book that attempts to bring order to such chaos is doomed to fall short, and How to Forecast Interest Rates predictably fails. But it is a studied failure. Author Martin J. Pring, a consulting editor to "The Bank Credit Analyst," probably the brightest advisory service published that deals with monetary trends, maintains that predicting turns is easy, provided that "you are prepared to accept the fact that it is more or less impossible to pick the exact top and bottom with any degree of consistency." Still, if a business or investor can keep even a slight distance ahead of utter confusion, it's a step in the right direction.
Pring's dogged pursuit of an elusive subject manages to pin down ways of looking at interest rates that will be instructive to anyone involved in programming a company's capital needs. Current rates are at or near record highs, but the problem in financing is that we don't yet know what "high" is. In Berlin in the '20s, money was lent for 10,000%; in New York, it once went for as little as 0.1%. In between, rates cycle upward and downward in short-, intermediate-, and long-term trends, wandering endlessly like captives in a circle of hell.
To determine approximately where we stand at any given moment within such seemingly aimless cycles, Pring describes at length how the disparate forces that ultimately dictate rates come together. He patiently defines such influential components as leading and lagging indicators, the U.S. debt market, banking liquidity, current accounts, "crowding out," discount rates, and a host of other economic factors that even a small business can no longer afford to ignore.
But as vital as there are to an appreciation of why rates go up and down -- indeed, leap up and down -- the discussion is only stage-setting for Pring's premise that the peaks and troughs of interest rates can be best understood through technical analysis of the various relationships. Employing an impressive selection of charts and graphs with squiggles cascading off almost every page, Pring describes methods for managers and investors to gain insight, tenuous as it might be. Some pointers for determining peaks:
* Look for a phase of panic buying in commodity markets.Interest rates and commodity prices often peak together.
* Sharply falling currency sometimes leads to rapidly peaking rates.
* At interest rate peaks, forecasts of wildly higher rates are prevalent, typically made by people who have incorrectly called peaks earlier in the cycle.
* The first decline in the discount rate following several months or even years of hikes is a fairly safe confirmation that an interest-rate peak has been seen.
And a sampling of trough conditions:
* Following a long decline, economic indicators such as housing starts and help wanted advertising will have been rising for several months.
* The stock market will have been rising for nine months to two years.
* Money supply will have begun to move above official targets.
* If the Administration begins to feel pressure for a tax cut because of high unemployment levels and the cut can be rationalized through a trend toward lower price-inflation rates, interest rates are probably going to move up.
How to Forecast Interest Rates doesn't truly tell the secrets of how to forecast interest rates. Nobody can. But in weighing the numerous considerations and showing how to relate them through appropriate charting methods, Pring gives it an exceptionally intelligent shot.