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?