It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.
According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.
In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.
“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”
This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:
“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”
Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:
“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”
Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?
Interest rates in the UK have been at a record low since 2009, recorded at just 0.5%. In July, the forward guidance from Mark Carney seemed to indicate that a rate rise would be likely towards the start of 2016. However, with the recovery of the British economy slowing, together with continuing problems in Europe and slowdowns in China, a rate rise has become less likely. Forward guidance hasn’t been particularly ‘guiding’, as a rate rise now seems most likely well into 2016 or even in 2017 and this is still very speculative.
Interest rates are a key tool of monetary policy and one of the government’s demand management policies. Low interest rates have remained in the UK as a means of stimulating economic growth, via influencing aggregate demand. Interest rates affect many of the components of aggregate demand, such as consumption – through affecting the incentive to save and spend and by affecting mortgage rates and disposable income. They affect investment by influencing the cost of borrowing and net exports through changing the exchange rate and hence the competitiveness of exports.
Low interest rates therefore help to boost all components of aggregate demand and this then should stimulate economic growth. While they have helped to do their job, circumstances across the global economy have acted in the opposite direction and so their effectiveness has been reduced.
Although the latest news on interest rates may suggest some worrying times for the UK, the information contained in the Bank of England’s Inflation Report isn’t all bad. Despite its predictions that the growth rate of the world economy will slow and inflation will remain weak, the predictions from August remain largely the same. The suggestion that interest rates will remain at 0.5% and that any increases are likely to be at a slow pace will flatten the yield curve, and, with predictions that inflation will remain weak, there will be few concerns that continuing low rates will cause inflationary pressures in the coming months. Mark Carney said:
“The lower path for Bank Rate implied by market yields would provide more than adequate support to domestic demand to bring inflation to target even in the face of global weakness.”
However, there are many critics of keeping interest rates down, both in the UK and the USA, in particular because of the implications for asset prices, in particular the housing market and for the growth in borrowing and hence credit debt. The Institute of Directors Chief Economist, James Sproute said:
“There is genuine apprehension over asset prices, the misallocation of capital and consumer debt…Borrowing is comfortably below the unsustainable pre-crisis levels, but with debt once against rising there is a need for vigilance…The question is, will the Bank look back on this unprecedented period of extraordinary monetary policy and wish they had acted sooner? The path of inaction may seem easier today, but maintaining rates this low, for this long, could prove a much riskier decision tomorrow.”
hanges in the strength of the global economy will certainly have a role to play in forming the opinions of the Monetary Policy Committee and it will also be a key event when the Federal Reserve pushes up its interest rates. This is certainly an area to keep watching, as it’s not a question of if rates will rise, but when.
Bank of England dampens prospects of early UK rate rise BBC News (5/11/15)
Bank of England Governor gets his forward guidance on interest rates wrong Independent, Ben Chu (6/11/15)
Interest rates set to remain at rock-bottom right through 2016 as Bank of England cuts UK growth and inflation forecasts This is Money, Adrian Lowery (5/11/15)
Pound slides as Bank of England suggests interest rates will stay low for longer – as it happened 5 November 2015 The Telegraph, Peter Spence (5/11/15)
UK’s record low interest rates should be raised next Februrary says NIESE The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/11/15)
Fresh signs of slowdown will force interest rates rise to be put on hold The Guardian, Katie Allen (2/11/15)
The perils of keeping interest rates so low The Telegraph, Andrew Sentence (6/11/15)
Time to ask why we are still in the era of ultra-low rates Financial Times, Chris Giles (4/11/15)
No interest rate rise until 2017: Joy for homeowners as Bank of England delays hike in mortgage costs again Mail Online, Matt Chorley (5/11/15)
Pound tumbles after Carney warns its strength threatens recovery Bloomberg, Lucy Meakin (5/11/15)
Is Carney hurt by wrong rate steer? BBC News, Robert Peston (5/11/15)
Data and Reports
Inflation Report Bank of England (August 2015)
Inflation Report Bank of England (November 2015)
Historical Fan Chart Data Bank of England (2015)
- Use and AD/AS diagram, explain how low interest rates affect the key components of aggregate demand and in turn how this will affect economic growth.
- What is meant by the ‘yield curve’? How has it been affected by the latest release from the Monetary Policy Committee?
- Why has the value of the pound been affected following the decision to keep interest rates at 0.5%?
- How has the sterling exchange rate changed and how might this affect UK exports?
- What are the main concerns expressed by those who think that there is a danger from keeping interest rates low for too long?
- Why is the outlook of the global economy so important for the direction of interest rate changes?
Now here’s a gloomy article from Robert Peston. He’s been looking at investors’ views about the coming years and sees a general pessimism about the prospects for long-term economic growth. And that pessimism is becoming deeper.
It is true that both the UK and the USA have recorded reasonable growth rates in recent months and do seem, at least on the surface, to be recovering from recession. But, according to investor behaviour, they:
seem to be saying, in how they place their money, that the UK’s and USA’s current reasonably rapid growth will turn out to be a short-lived period of catch-up, following the deep recession of 2008-9.
So what is it about investor behaviour that implies a deep pessimism and are investors right to be pessimistic? The article explores these issues. It does also look at an alternative explanation that investors may merely be being cautious until a clearer picture emerges about long-term growth prospects – which may turn out to be better that many currently now predict.
The article finishes by looking at a possible solution to the problem (if you regard low or zero growth as a problem). That would be for the government to ‘throw money at investment in infrastructure – to generate both short-term growth and enhance long-term productive potential.’
Note that Elizabeth also looks at this article in her blog The end of growth in the west?.
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- What is meant by the ’25-year yield curve for government bonds’? Why does this yield curve imply a deep level of business pessimism about the long-term prospects for UK economic growth?
- What are the determinants of long-term economic growth?
- Looking at these determinants, which ones suggest that long-term economic growth may be low?
- Are there any determinants which might suggest that economic growth will be maintained over the long term at historical levels of around 2.6%?
- Do demand-side policies affect potential GDP and, if so, how?
- What policies could government pursue to increase the rate of growth in potential GDP?
- What current ‘dramas’ affecting the world economy could have long-term implications for economic growth? How does uncertainty about the long-term implications for the global economy of such dramas itself affect economic growth?
- Is long-term growth in real GDP an appropriate indicator of (a) economic development and (b) long-term growth in general well-being?
The growth rates of the Western world have been somewhat volatile for the past decade, with negative growth sending economies into recession and then varying degrees of economic recovery. Growth rates elsewhere have been very high, in particular in countries such as China and India. The future of economic growth in the west is hotly debated and whether the western world has been forever changed by the credit crunch remains to be seen.
The article below from the BBC, written by Robert Peston, the Economics Editor, addresses the question of the future of the western world. Opinions differ as to whether the west is finally recovering from the recession and financial instability or if the credit crunch and subsequent recession is just the beginning of many years of economic stagnation. The article in particular focuses on the yield curve and the trends in government debt or gilts. This tends to be a key indicator of the expectations of the future of an economy and how confident investors are in its likely trajectory. Though technical in places, this article provides some interesting stances on what we might expect in the coming 2-3 decades for economic performance in the West.
Note that John also looks at this article in his blog Cloudy Skies Ahead?
The end of growth in the West? BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/14)
- Which factors affect the economic growth of a nation?
- Confidence from consumers, firms and investors is always argued to be crucial to the future economic growth and in many cases, the recovery of an economy. Explain why this factor is so important.
- What is the yield curve and what does it show?
- How can the yield curve be used to offer predictions about the future strength of an economy?
- Why are governments seen as the safest place to lend?
- If Larry Summers is correct in saying that it is a negative equilibrium interest rate that is needed to generate full employment growth, what does this suggest about the future economic performance of the western world?
- In the article, there is a list of some of the key things that make investors anxious. Review each of these factors and explain why it is so important in generating anxiety.