This is an excellent explanation of the behavioral illogic of Zero Interest Rate Policies being imposed by the major central banks of the world. If only they paid more attention to how they were increasing perceived risks and uncertainty in markets.
Low Interest Rates: A Self-Defeating Strategy
Instead of encouraging spending and boosting the economy, low rates can lead people to squirrel more money away to meet their retirement or other goals.
And if interest rates ever hit zero, money would be free, which should mean the economy should be like an open bar—a real party. Then think about what would happen if rates went where they never had gone before—below zero percent and into negative territory. Lenders would be paying borrowers, rather than the other way around.
This isn’t some alternate universe, but rather what’s actually happening in Europe. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, some borrowers in Spain had the rates on their mortgages fall below zero, which meant the bank owed them money. That comes as approximately one-third of all European government bonds carry negative yields.
Those are mainly short-to-intermediate maturities whose yields have followed the European Central Bank’s minus 0.20% deposit rate into negative territory. But, by week’s end, the benchmark 10-year German bund yield seemed inexorably headed below zero, as it set another record closing low of 0.073%, according to Tradeweb. At that return, investors would double their money in a mere 1,000 years.
But the boom that the textbooks predict is nowhere in evidence. That’s not a surprise to Jason Hsu, vice chairman and co-founder of Research Affiliates and also a card-carrying Ph.D. and adjunct professor at UCLA. As a frequent visitor to Japan over more than a decade, he’s had a chance to observe firsthand the effect of near-zero interest rates.
In the complete opposite of what classical economics teaches, low returns actually have induced Japanese consumers to spend less, he says. As the aging population saves more to get to a threshold of assets needed for retirement, firms seeing no spending are loath to spend, invest, or hire. “This is a bad spiral that never was predicted,” Jason explains (appropriately enough, over a sushi lunch).
This had always been assumed to reflect both the demographics and cultural traits of Japan. But that world view will have to be revised, as there’s evidence of the same thing happening in Europe, he adds, with Germans reacting to zero interest rates by saving more. This behavioral dimension helps explain the tepid payoff from the unprecedented “financial repression” that has taken interest rates to zero and below.
The restraints on spending from forcing savers to save more in a low-rate environment has been a theme sounded by a number of critics, including David Einhorn, the head of Greenlight Capital, a hedge fund. At a recent Grant’s Interest Rate Observer conference, he quoted Raghuram Rajan, the head of India’s central bank, who, in a lecture at the Bank for International Settlements in 2013, spoke of the plight of someone nearing retirement and facing losses on savings (from two bear markets this century) and low prospective returns. That “can imply low real interest rates are contractionary—savers put more aside as interest rates fall in order to meet the savings they think they will need when they retire.” Indeed, according to a widely cited estimate by Swiss Re, U.S. savers have foregone some $470 billion in interest earnings since 2008.
That conundrum was quantified in a report by David P. Goldman, head of Americas research at Reorient Capital in Hong Kong. A saver who accumulates assets for retirement through stocks would want to “annuitize” or convert that wealth into a stream of income for retirement. “But the amount of income investors can expect to receive from an equity portfolio converted into bonds actually has fallen over the past 18 years,” he writes.
At the peak of the stock market in 2000, Goldman calculates that one unit of the Standard & Poor’s 500 annually earned the real equivalent of $1,900 (adjusted for inflation, in 1982 dollars) when invested in Baa (medium-grade) corporate bonds. At the market’s recovery in 2007, one unit of the S&P would earn $1,300; now, it’s only $1,100.
The same goes for home prices. A house bought for $500,000 in 2000 and sold today and reinvested in Baa bonds would yield $16,000 annually in 1982 dollars, versus $22,000 when it was bought 15 years ago. Bottom line: “Assets have soared, but the prospective interest on these assets has shrunk.”
Which means that even the affluent top 20% of Americans (who accounted for 61% of domestic consumption in 2012, up from 53%, according to data cited by Goldman) who actually have assets are more cautious about spending than a naïve view of the wealth effect might suggest, he concludes.
To be fair, what we learned about interest rates and the economy were predicated on “normal” levels. A decline in mortgage rates from, say, 7% to 5% could reliably be counted on to set off a rebound. That would lower the monthly payment on a $300,000, 30-year loan by nearly 25%, to around $1,600 from $2,000. First-time home buyers then might qualify to get into a house; the sellers could trade up to nicer digs; those who stayed put could refinance and cut their payment or take down more money to pay off other debt or spend on a car, boat, or college tuition.
It may be that, as interest rates—which represent the time value of money [plus the risk premium for uncertain outcomes]—approach zero, their impact is distorted, just as time is distorted as the speed of light is approached, according to Einstein.
Financial repression that has depressed rates to levels that are unprecedented in history is having unpredictable effects, which shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. Even if we didn’t learn about them in school.