Efficient markets are synonymous with confidence and liquidity – the result of investors' appetite to underwrite risk and savers' appetite to provide leverage to investors who want to underwrite risk. As risk appetite increases, liquidity follows, producing an increase in overall confidence.
Perhaps higher interest rates could increase both liquidity and confidence. Higher rates would strengthen the U.S. dollar – which has been in a free fall the past two years – and, therefore, strengthen foreign confidence in the U.S. economy. Walter Bagehot, a 19th century British economist, noted as much 140 years ago when he called a seizing of internal markets "a domestic drain” and the flight of capital abroad "an external drain." Bagehot argued that raising interest rates restores foreign confidence and makes domestic banks more willing to lend.
But would higher rates further ravish the housing market? Interest rates exert influence on home prices, to be sure, but the relationship is surprisingly tenuous. In 1980, the prime 30-year fix-rate mortgage averaged 13.7%, rising to 16.1% in 1982. Home prices during that period tumbled over 20%. From 1984 through the present, mortgage rates have steadily trended lower, but in 1989 the housing market endured a major 15% correction. Of course, it's enduring another correction today on relatively low rates.
At this stage in the game, more willing lenders are more important to reviving the housing market than marginally lower interest rates. After all, what good is cheap money if no one is willing to lend it?
Eric P. Egeland