A constant feature of the UK economy (and of many other Western economies) has been record low interest rates. Since March 2009, Bank Rate has stood at 0.5%. Interest rates have traditionally been used to keep inflation on target, but more recently their objective has been to stimulate growth. However, have these low interest rates had a negative effect on the business environment?
Interest rates are a powerful tool of monetary policy and by affecting many of the components of aggregate demand, economic growth can be stimulated. This low-interest rate environment is an effective tool to stimulate consumer spending, as it keeps borrowing costs low and in particular can keep mortgage repayments down. However, this policy has been criticised for the harm it has been doing to savers – after all, money in the bank will not earn an individual any money with interest rates at 0.5%! Furthermore, there is now a concern that such low interest rates have led to ‘zombie companies’ and they are restricting the growth potential and recovery of the economy.
A report by the Adam Smith Institute suggests that these ‘zombie companies’ have emerged in part by the low-interest environment and are continuing to absorb resources, which could otherwise be re-allocated to companies with more potential, productivity and a greater contribution to the economic recovery. During a recession, there will undoubtedly be many business closures, as aggregate demand falls, sales and profits decline until eventually the business becomes unviable and loans cannot be repaid. Given the depth and duration of the recent recessionary period, the number of business closures should have been very large. However, the total number appears to be relatively low – around 2% or 100,000 and the report suggests that the low interest rates have helped to ‘protect’ them.
Low interest rates have enabled businesses to meet their debt repayments more easily and with some banks being unwilling to admit to ‘bad loans’, businesses have benefited from loans being extended or ‘rolled over’. This has enabled them to survive for longer and as the report suggests, may be preventing a full recovery. The report’s author, Tom Papworth said:
Low interest rates and bank forbearance represent a vast and badly targeted attempt to avoid dealing with the recession. Rather than solving our current crisis, they risk dooming the UK to a decade of stagnation … We tend to see zombies as slow-moving and faintly laughable works of fiction. Economically, zombies are quite real and hugely damaging, and governments and entrepreneurs cannot simply walk away.
The problem they create is that resources are invested into these companies – labour, capital, innovation. This creates an opportunity cost – the resources may be more productive if invested into new companies, with greater productive potential. The criticism is that the competitiveness of the economy is being undermined by the continued presence of such companies and that this in turn is holding the UK economy back. Perhaps the interest rate rise that may happen this time next year may be what is needed to encourage the re-allocation of capital. However, a 0.5 percentage point rise in interest rates would hardly be the end of the world for some of these companies. Perhaps a more focused approach looking at restructuring is the key to their survival and the allocation of resources to their most productive use. The following articles and the report itself consider the case of the trading dead.
The Trading Dead The Adam Smith Institute, Tom Papworth November 2013
Zombie firms threaten UK’s economic recovery, says thinktank The Guardian, Gyyn Topam (18/11/13)
Zombie companies ‘probably have no long term future’ BBC News (18/11/13)
Rate rise set to put stake through heart of zombie companies Financial Times, Brian Groom (14/11/13)
Why we can still save the zombie firms hindering the UK economic rival City A.M., Henry Jackson (18/11/13)
Breathing new life into zombies The Telegraph, Rachel Bridge (9/11/13)