Category Archives: cost of capital

10/1/20: Eight centuries of global real interest rates

There is a smashingly good paper out from the Bank of England, titled "Eight centuries of global real interest rates, R-G, and the ‘suprasecular’ decline, 1311–2018", Staff Working Paper No. 845, by Paul Schmelzing.

Using "archival, printed primary, and secondary sources, this paper reconstructs global real interest rates on an annual basis going back to the 14th century, covering 78% of advanced economy GDP over time."

Key findings:

  • "... across successive monetary and fiscal regimes, and a variety of asset classes, real interest rates have not been ‘stable’, and...
  • "... since the major monetary upheavals of the late middle ages, a trend decline between 0.6–1.6 basis points per annum has prevailed."
  • "A gradual increase in real negative‑yielding rates in advanced economies over the same horizon is identified, despite important temporary reversals such as the 17th Century Crisis."

The present 'abnormality' in declining interest rates is not, in fact 'abnormal'. Instead, as the author points out: "Against their long‑term context, currently depressed sovereign real rates are in fact converging ‘back to historical trend’ — a trend that makes narratives about a ‘secular stagnation’ environment entirely misleading, and suggests that — irrespective of particular monetary and fiscal responses — real rates could soon enter permanently negative territory."

Two things worth commenting on:

  1. Secular stagnation: in my opinion, interest rates trend is not in itself a unique identifier of the secular stagnation. While interest rates did decline on a super-long trend, as the paper correctly shows, the broader drivers of this decline can be distinct from the 'secular stagnation'-linked declines in productivity and growth. In other words, at different periods of time, different factors could have been driving the interest rates declines, including higher (not lower) productivity of the financial system, e.g. development of modern markets and banking, broadening of capital funding sources (such as increase in merchant classes wealth, emergence of the middle class, etc), and decoupling of capital supply from the gold standard (which did not happen in 1973 abandonment of formal gold standard, but predates this development by a good part of 60-70 years).
  2. "Permanently negative territory" for interest rates forward: this is a major hypothesis from the perspective of the future markets. And it is consistent with the secular stagnation, as availability of capital is now being linked to the monetary expansion, not to supply of 'organic' - economy-generated - capital.

More hypotheses from the author worth looking at: "I also posit that the return data here reflects a substantial share of ‘non‑human wealth’ over time: the resulting R-G series derived from this data show a downward trend over the same timeframe: suggestions about the ‘virtual stability’ of capital returns, and the policy implications advanced by Piketty (2014) are in consequence equally unsubstantiated by the historical record."

There is a lot in the paper that is worth pondering. One key question is whether, as measured by the 'safe' (aka Government) cost of capital, the real interest rates even matter in terms of the productive economy capital? Does R vs G debate reflect the productivity growth or economic growth and do the two types of growth actually align as closely as we theoretically postulate to the financial assets returns?

The macroeconomics folks will call my musings on the topic a heresy. But... when one watches endlessly massive skews in financial returns to the upside, amidst relatively slow economic growth and even slower real increases in the economic well-being experienced in the last few decades, one starts to wonder: do G (GDP growth) and R (real interest rates determined by the Government cost of funding) matter? Heresy has its way of signaling unacknowledged reality.

5/10/17: Leverage Risk, Credit Quality & Debt Tax Shield

In our Risk & Resilience class @ MIIS, we cover the impact of various aspects of the VUCA environment on, amongst other things, the Weighted Average Cost of Capital. One key element of this analysis - the one we usually start with - is the leverage risk. In practical terms, we know that the U.S. (bonds --> intermediated bank debt) and Europe (intermediated debt --> bonds) are both addicted to corporate leverage, with lower cost of capital attributable to debt. We also know that this is down not to the recoverability risks or credit risks, but to the asymmetric treatment of debt and equity in tax systems. Specifically, leverage risk is driven predominantly by tax shields (tax deductibility) of debt.

In simple terms, tax system encourages, actively, accumulation of leverage risks on companies capital accounts. Not only that, tax preferences for debt imply distorted U-shaped relationship between credit ratings (credit risk profile of the company) and the cost of capital, whereby top-rated A+, A and A- have higher cost of capital (due to greater exposure to equity) than more risky BBB and BBB- corporates (who have higher share of tax0deductible debt in total capital structure).

Which brings us to one benefit of reducing tax shield value of debt (either by lowering corporate tax rate, which automatically lowers the value of tax shield) or by dropping tax deduction on debt (or both). Here is a chart showing that when tax deductibility of debt is eliminated, companies with lowest risk profile (A+ rated) enjoy lowest cost of capital. As it should be, were risk playing more significant role in determining the cost of company funding, instead of a tax shield.

Simples. com