Category Archives: Interest rates

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.

16/7/19: Monetary Policy Paradigm: To Cut or To Cut, and Not to Not Cut

QE is back... almost. After a decade plus of failing to deliver on its core objectives, and having primed the massive bubble in risky assets, while pumping sky high wealth inequality through massive monetary transfers to the established Wall Street elites... all while denying that we are in an ongoing secular stagnation. So, courtesy of the unpredictable, erratic and highly uneven economic parameters performance of the last 12 months, we now have this:

Because, for all the obvious reasons, doing more of the same and expecting a different result is the wisdom of the policymaking in the 21st century.

14/7/18: Elephants. China Shop, Enters a Mouse: Global Debt Bubble

Bank for International Settlements Annual Report for 2018 has a very interesting set of charts covering the growing global debt bubble, one of the key risks to the global economy highlighted in the report.

First, levels:

  • Global debt rose from 179% of GDP at the end of 2007 to 217% at the end of 2017 - adding 38 percentage points to the overall leverage carried by the global economy.
  • The rise has been more dramatic for the Emerging Economies, with debt levels rising from 113% of GDP to 176% between the end of 2007 and the end of 2017, a net addition of 63 percentage points.
  • Advanced economies faired somewhat better, posting an increase from 233% of GDP to 269%, a net rise of 36 percentage points.
  • As it stood at the end of 2017, Global Debt was well in excess of x3 the Global GDP - a degree of leverage not seen in the modern history.

As noted by BIS: “ markets are overstretched, as noted above, and we have seen a continuous rise in the global stock of debt, private plus public, in relation to GDP. This has extended a trend that goes back to well before the crisis and that has coincided with a long-term decline in interest rates".

Next, impacts of monetary policy normalization:

As the Central Banks embark on gradual, well-flagged in advance and 'orderly' overall rates and asset purchases 'normalization', the global economy is likely to bifurcate, based on individual countries debt exposures. As the chart above shows, impact from a modest, 100bps hike in rates, will be relatively significant for all economies, with greater impact on highly indebted countries.

Per BIS: "Since the mid-1980s, unsustainable economic expansions appear to have manifested themselves mainly in the shape of unsustainable increases in debt and asset prices. Thus, even in the absence of any near-term market disruptions, keeping interest rates too low for too long could raise financial and macroeconomic risks further down the road. In particular, there are reasons to believe that the downward trend in real rates and the upward trend in debt over the past two decades are related and even mutually reinforcing. True, lower equilibrium interest rates may have increased the sustainable level of debt. But, by reducing the cost of credit, they also actively encourage debt accumulation. In turn, high debt levels make it harder to raise interest rates, as asset markets and the economy become more interest rate-sensitive – a kind of “debt trap”."

Thus, the impetus for rates and monetary policies normalisation is the threat of continued debt bubble inflation, but the cost of such normalisation is the deflation of the debt bubble already present. In other words, there's an elephant and here's the china shop.

"A further complication in calibrating normalisation relates to the need to build policy buffers for the next downturn. Indeed, the room for policy manoeuvre is much narrower than it was before the crisis: policy rates are substantially lower and balance sheets much larger". And here's the mouse: cyclically, we are nearing the turning point in the current expansion. And despite all the PR releases about the 'robust recovery' current up-cycle in the global economy has been associated with lower growth rates, lower productivity growth, lower real investment (as opposed to financial flows), and more debt than equity (see

In other words, things are risky, but also fragile. Elephants in a china shop. Enters a mouse...