UNEMPLOYMENT is rising, and the Federal Reserve responded on Friday by pushing interests lower. Several big banks, following that lead, cut their prime lending rates half a percentage point. That's all routine economic management -- except that Germany's central bank, its counterpart of the Federal Reserve, had just raised interest rates half a percentage point.
Interest rates in this country are now substantially lower than in Europe, and that will draw money eastward across the Atlantic. One indicator of it will be the dollar's exchange rate, which is likely to fall further. The competition is sharpening for the world's savings -- the pool of capital from which all investments (and all deficits) are financed. It's highly mobile money, and it moves quickly across borders in search of the highest return.
In the 1980s the United States fell into the habit of financing much of its investment (and deficits) with other people's savings -- chiefly from Europe and Japan. Americans didn't save much, but by keeping their interest rates high they were able to attract sufficient funds from abroad to compensate for it. That's going to be more expensive in the 1990s.
The Japanese are spending more money on infrastructure at home. In Europe, Germany has taken on three large obligations. Unification with the former East Germany, and the reconstruction of that mistreated economy, is turning out to be expensive. To induce the Soviets to pull their troops out of eastern Germany, the Germans have promised them subsidies to build, among other things, housing in the Soviet Union for the returning soldiers. In addition, Germany has pledged a contribution to the cost of the Gulf war. Tax increases aren't any more popular in Germany than here, and there's great strife among the politicians over the financing of all of those promises. So far, it's being done by borrowing. That's why European interest rates are going up.
For the present, the consequences for the United States are not great. Because of the recession here, private investment is down and the immediate need for funds is not acute. But if the recession is a short one, as most forecasters expect, the worldwide market for money will tighten soon. If Americans want to continue to live on other people's savings, they are going to have to outbid foreign borrowers. That suggests sharply higher interest rates ahead, when the recovery gets underway.