Tag Archives: Interest rate

Sources of Low Real Interest Rates

In a (December 2015) Bank of England Staff Working Paper, Lukasz Rachel and Thomas Smith dissect the global decline in long-term real interest rates over the last thirty years.

A summary of their executive summary:

  • Market measures of long-term risk-free real interest rates have declined by around 450bps.
  • Absent signs of overheating this suggests that the global neutral rate fell.
  • Expected trend growth as well as other factors affecting desired savings and investment determine the neutral rate.
  • Global growth was fairly steady before the crisis but may (be expected to) fall after the financial crisis. Recently, slower labor supply (demographics) and productivity growth may account for a 100bps decline in the real rate.
  • Desired savings rose, due to demographics (90bps), higher within country inequality (45bps), and higher savings rates in emerging markets following the Asian crisis (25bps).
  • Desired investment fell, due to a lower relative price of capital goods (50bps) and less public investment (20bps).
  • The spread between the return on capital and the risk-free rate rose (70bps).
  • These trends look likely to persist and the “global neutral real rate may settle at or slightly below 1% over the medium- to long-run”.

From page 2 of the paper:
Untitled

See also the summary by James Hamilton; the White House CEA report; and the 17th Geneva report.

Marvin Goodfriend, the Fed’s Board of Governors, and Negative Rates

In the FT, Sam Fleming and Demetri Sevastopulo report that the White House considers Marvin Goodfriend for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

He has criticised the Fed’s crisis-era balance sheet expansion, saying the central bank should generally not purchase mortgage-backed securities, and has advocated the use of monetary policy rules to guide policy, as has Mr Quarles. …

At the same time, however, Mr Goodfriend has been willing to contemplate the use of deeply negative rates to stimulate growth — something that the Fed has thus far not embarked upon. In 1999 he wrote that negative rates were a feasible option, years before central banks started actually experimenting with them.

To implement negative rates while preserving cash, Goodfriend has advocated a flexible exchange rate between deposits and cash. On Alphaville, Matthew Klein quotes from a recent paper of Goodfriend’s:

The zero bound encumbrance on interest rate policy could be eliminated completely and expeditiously by discontinuing the central bank defense of the par deposit price of paper currency. … the central bank would no longer let the outstanding stock of paper currency vary elastically to accommodate the deposit demand for paper currency at par. …

The reason to abandon the pegged par deposit price of paper currency is analogous to the … reasons for abandoning the gold standard and fixed exchange rate: it is to let fluctuations in the deposit demand for paper currency be reflected in the deposit price of paper currency so as not to destabilize the general price level … the flexible deposit price of paper currency would behave as it actually did when the payment of paper currency for deposits was restricted in the United States during the banking crises of 1873, 1893, and 1907.

Monetary Policy Implementation in China

The Economist reports that implementation gradually changes:

[T]he way in which the People’s Bank of China conducts monetary policy is changing. It is beginning to look a little more like central banks in developed economies as it shifts towards liberalised interest rates. Rather than simply ordering banks to set specific lending or deposit rates—the focus for many years in China—it is altering the monetary environment around them. China does not yet have an equivalent of the federal-funds rate in America or the refinancing rate in Europe, but it has a few candidates for its new benchmark interest rate. The seven-day bond-repurchase rate, which influences banks’ funding costs, is in pole position.

There is also an element of political intrigue in this transition to a more mature monetary framework. The Chinese central bank sits under the State Council, or cabinet, which has the final say over lending and deposit rates as well as other big policy decisions. Repo rates, by contrast, are seen as sufficiently abstruse for the central bank to decide on its own when it wants to change them.

World War I Turned the Swiss Franc Into a Strong Currency

In Die Volkswirtschaft, Ernst Baltensperger and Peter Kugler summarize the history of the Swiss Franc since the mid 19th century:

  • After 1973, the Swiss Franc has been strong. Swiss Franc yields have been lower than what uncovered interest parity would suggest.
  • Before 1914, the Swiss Franc was weak in the sense that it enjoyed only limited credibility. In periods with fixed exchange rates, Swiss Franc yields typically exceeded yields in French Franc or Sterling.
  • Throughout the 20th century, the Swiss Franc appreciated by more than what inflation differentials would suggest, potentially reflecting the Balassa-Samuelson effect.

Negative Interest Rates vs. Higher Inflation

On his blog, Ben Bernanke weighs the pros and cons of negative (nominal) interest rates vs. a higher inflation target to create monetary “policy space.” His main points are:

  • Lower rates work immediately. In contrast, a higher inflation target only works once agents’ expectations adjust. A higher target may not be politically tenable a thus, not be credible. In contrast, “institutional changes … [such] as eliminating or restricting the issuance of large-denomination currency, could expand the scope for negative rates.”
  • Both negative rates and higher inflation have negative side effects. But the side effects of negative rates would materialize only during bad recessions.
  • There are reasons to expect that higher inflation would impose a relatively larger burden on the “poor” while negative interest rates would impose a relatively larger burden on the “rich.”
  • The political risks for the Fed associated with a higher inflation target may be substantial.

Monetary Policy When Interest Rates are Near Zero

In the 18th Geneva Report on the World Economy, Laurence Ball, Joseph Gagnon, Patrick Honohan and Signe Krogstrup ask whether “central banks can do [more] to provide stimulus when rates are near zero; and … whether policies exist that would lessen future constraints from the lower bound.”

They are optimistic and argue that the unconventional policies of recent years can be extended: “[I]t is likely that rates could go somewhat further than what has been done so far without adverse consequences” and “[m]ore stimulus can be provided if policymakers increase the scale of quantitative easing, and if they expand the range of assets they purchase to include risky assets such as equity.” While the authors concede that QE might have negative side effects they argue that the benefits are worth the costs.

To relax the zero lower bound constraint in the future, Ball, Gagnon, Honohan and Krogstrup argue in favor of a higher inflation target. They view cashless societies as not imminent but possible.

Developing Countries Issue Sovereign Debt (Lots of)

In the FT, Elaine Moore reports that “[d]eveloping economies are on course to raise a record sum on global debt markets this year, as ultra-low rates in the developed world cheapen borrowing costs for countries from Asia to South America.” By the end of the year, hard currency debt sales by countries such as Mexico, Quatar, Saudi Arabia and Argentina are expected to reach USD 125 billion.

Central Bank Independence, Old-Fashioned?

The Economist speculates that central bank independence might be on its way out. The article suggests that motives for independence (i.e., Sargent/Wallace or Barro/Gordon type arguments) might be less relevant given the environment of low inflation and interest rates.

See also my earlier, related blog post.

Money Demand

In a recent NBER working paper, Luca Benati, Robert E. Lucas, Jr., Juan Pablo Nicolini, and Warren Weber report estimates of long-term money demand. They write:

[U]sing annual data on money (M1, for us), nominal GDP, and short term interest rates from 31 countries over periods that range in some cases to over 100 years. We find remarkable stability in long run money demand behavior in many countries, and an equally surprising sameness across different countries. In some cases of instability, anomalies have straightforward explanations.

“Dirk Niepelt über die Folgen eines Brexit für die Schweiz (What Brexit Means for Switzerland),” SRF, 2016

SRF, Tagesgespräch, June 16, 2016. HTML with link to MP3.

  • Half-hour-long interview on the Swiss news channel.
  • Topics include monetary policy, exchange rates, financial stability, Brexit.

“Zinsen, Inflation und Realismus (Interest, Inflation and Realism),” FuW, 2016

Finanz und Wirtschaft, April 30, 2016. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, May 6, 2016. HTML.

The winners and losers of the current monetary environment are not that easy to identify. Investors holding long-term, non-indexed debt gain as unexpectedly low inflation shifts wealth from borrowers to lenders. Governments suffer from increased real debt burdens and reduced revenue due to effectively lower capital income tax rates. Policies that succeed in affecting the real exchange rate entail redistribution.

Neo-Fisherianism Turns Mainstream

On his blog, John Cochrane offers a stripped down model and some intuition for why inflation would rise after an increase in the interest rate. The model features the usual Euler (IS) equation and a Mickey Mouse Phillips curve—inflation is proportional to consumption (or output). The intuition:

During the time of high real interest rates — when the nominal rate has risen, but inflation has not yet caught up — consumption must grow faster [the Euler equation, DN]. … Since more consumption pushes up prices, giving more inflation, inflation must also rise during the period of high consumption growth.

Also:

I really like that the Phillips curve here is so completely old fashioned. This is Phillips’ Phillips curve, with a permanent inflation-output tradeoff. That fact shows squarely where the neo-Fisherian result comes from. The forward-looking intertemporal-substitution IS equation is the central ingredient.

A slightly more plausible model with an accelerationist Phillips curve and very slowly adjusting adaptive expectations yields the following responses to an increase in the nominal interest rate:

cochr

John writes:

As you can see, we still have a completely positive response. Inflation ends up moving one for one with the rate change. Consumption booms and then slowly reverts to zero. …

The positive consumption response does not survive with more realistic or better grounded Phillips curves. With the standard forward looking new Keynesian Phillips curve inflation looks about the same, but output goes down throughout the episode: you get stagflation.

A November 2015 paper on the topic by James Bullard.

A critique by Mariana García-Schmidt and Michael Woodford in an NBER working paper. Abstract:

We illustrate a pitfall that can result from the common practice of assessing alternative monetary policies purely by considering the perfect foresight equilibria (PFE) consistent with the proposed rule. In a standard New Keynesian model, such analysis may seem to support the “Neo-Fisherian” proposition according to which low nominal interest rates can cause inflation to be lower. We propose instead an explicit cognitive process by which agents may form their expectations of future endogenous variables. Under some circumstances, a PFE can arise as a limiting case of our more general concept of reflective equilibrium, when the process of reflection is pursued sufficiently far. But we show that an announced intention to fix the nominal interest rate for a long enough period of time creates a situation in which reflective equilibrium need not resemble any PFE. In our view, this makes PFE predictions not plausible outcomes in the case of such policies. Our alternative approach implies that a commitment to keep interest rates low should raise inflation and output, though by less than some PFE analyses apply.

On his blog, Stephen Williamson addresses “Neo-Fisherian Denial.” Williamson starts with the model analyzed by Cochrane (see above) featuring a Mickey Mouse Phillips curve. He argues:

[This] NK model actually doesn’t conform to conventional central banking beliefs about how monetary policy works. What’s going on? … an increase in the current nominal interest rate will increase the real interest rate, everything else held constant. This implies that future consumption (output) must be higher than current consumption, for consumers to be happy with their consumption profile given the higher nominal interest rate. But, it turns out that this is achieved not through a reduction in current output and consumption, but through an increase in future output and consumption. This serves, through the Phillips curve mechanism, to increase future inflation relative to current inflation. Then, along the path to the new steady state, output and inflation increase.

Williamson recalls the “perils” of Taylor rules. And he addresses the critique by Garcia-Schmidt and Woodford:

Some people (e.g. Garcia-Schmidt and Woodford) have argued that Neo-Fisherian results go out the window in NK models under learning rules. As was shown above, these models are always fundamentally Fisherian in that any monetary policy rule has to somehow adhere to Fisherian logic on average – basically the long-run nominal interest rate is the inflation anchor. But there can also be learning rules that give very Fisherian results. …

Williamson also argues that other (non-Keynesian) monetary models give neo-Fisherian results as well.

A few years ago, also on his blog, Stephen Williamson argued that lowering the interest rate (by engaging in QE) might also affect the real interest rate:

… short-run liquidity effects are short-lived. Further, my work shows that there is another liquidity effect, associated with the interest bearing liquid assets, that causes the long run real rate to increase as a result of QE. … which implies lower inflation.

Further, there are other forces in play … The destruction of private sources of collateral and the shaky state of sovereign governments in parts of the world gave U.S. government debt a large liquidity premium – i.e. those things reduced real interest rates. As those effects go away over time, real rates of return will rise, shifting up the long-run Fisher relation, and reducing inflation if the Fed keeps the nominal interest rate at the zero lower bound.

In a paper, Peter Rupert and Roman Sustek dig deeper. In the abstract they write:

The monetary transmission mechanism in New-Keynesian models is put to scrutiny, focusing on the role of capital. We demonstrate that, contrary to a widely held view, the transmission mechanism does not operate through a real interest rate channel. Instead, as a first pass, inflation is determined by Fisherian principles, through current and expected future monetary policy shocks, while output is then pinned down by the New-Keynesian Phillips curve. The real rate largely only reflects consumption smoothing. In fact, declines in output and inflation are consistent with a decline, increase, or no change in the ex-ante real rate.

Addendum (May 11–12, 2016): In the abstract of their NBER working paper, Julio Garín, Robert Lester and Eric Sims write:

Increasing the inflation target in a textbook New Keynesian (NK) model may require increasing, rather than decreasing, the nominal interest rate in the short run. We refer to this positive short run co-movement between the nominal interest rate and inflation conditional on a nominal shock as Neo-Fisherianism. We show that the NK model is more likely to be Neo-Fisherian the more persistent is the change in the inflation target and the more flexible are prices. Neo-Fisherianism is driven by the forward-looking nature of the model. Modifications which make the framework less forward-looking make it less likely for the model to exhibit Neo-Fisherianism. As an example, we show that a modest and empirically realistic fraction of “rule of thumb” price-setters may altogether eliminate Neo-Fisherianism in the textbook model.

In his 2008 textbook, Jordi Gali discusses the role of the persistence of monetary policy shocks (page 51). If it is sufficiently persistent, a contractionary monetary policy shock raises the real rate (and lowers output) but decreases the nominal rate, due to the

decline in inflation and the output gap more than offsetting the direct effect [of the shock].

Longer-Term Interest Rate Pegs

In his blog, Ben Bernanke discusses the merits of longer-term interest rate targeting as a monetary policy tool.

A lot would depend on the credibility of the Fed’s announcement. If investors do not believe that the Fed will be successful at pushing down the two-year rate … they will immediately sell their securities of two years’ maturity or less to the Fed. … the Fed could end up owning most or all of the eligible securities, with uncertain consequences for interest rates overall. On the other hand, if the Fed’s announcement is fully credible, the prices of eligible securities might move immediately to the targeted levels, and the Fed might achieve its objective without acquiring many securities at all.

… A policy of targeting longer-term rates is related to quantitative easing in that both involve buying potentially large quantities of securities. An important difference is that one sets a quantity and the other sets a price. … Concerns about “losing control of the balance sheet” were a factor behind the Fed’s choice of quantitative easing over rate targets while I was chairman.

Conceivably, QE and rate-pegging could be used together … with QE working through reduced risk premiums while the rate peg operates indirectly by affecting the expected path of short-term interest rates. … The principal limitations of rate pegs are similar to those of forward guidance: Both tools are relatively less effective at affecting interest rates at longer maturities, and even at shorter horizons both must be consistent with a credible or “time-consistent policy” path for short-term interest rates.

I Would Like to Withdraw A Couple Billion Swiss Francs: Legal Aspects

On his blog, Urs Birchler offers different perspectives on the question whether the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is obliged to pay out banks’ reserves in cash.

  • One view: Reserves are legal tender. The SNB therefore is not obliged to exchange reserves against cash.
  • Another view: According to the law, the SNB is required to provide sufficient cash. Moreover, reserves and cash were meant to be perfect substitutes.
  • Yet another view: Lawmakers would have written a different law had they known that the SNB considers it necessary to impose negative interest rates.

Liquidity Trap Kills Liquidity Effect

In his blog, John Cochrane registers disagreement with Larry Summers and reiterates his own argument that in a liquidity trap, interest rate policy does not have a liquidity effect and thus, only a long-run “expected inflation” or “Fisher” effect:

When the liquidity effect is absent, the expected inflation effect is all that remains. Inflation must follow interest rates.

Tax Treatment of Negative Interest Rates in Germany

The German Ministry of Finance has decided (p. 55, nr. 129a) that for tax purposes, negative interest rates are not to be treated as the opposite of positive interest rates. Instead they are considered fees. This treatment lowers taxable income to a lesser extent than would be the case under a symmetric treatment.

“Neue Geldpolitik, alte Optionen (New Monetary Policies, Old Policy Options),” FuW, 2016

Finanz und Wirtschaft, January 20, 2016. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, January 21, 2016. HTML.

The public’s perception of central banks has changed during the crisis—and has created expectations that cannot be met. Beyond the buzzwords, the fundamental options for monetary policy makers are the same as always.

Low Interest Rates

In the 17th Geneva Report on the World Economy (Low for Long? Causes and Consequences of Persistently Low Interest Rates), Charles Bean, Christian Broda, Takatoshi Ito and Randall Kroszner take up the theme of a recent report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors (see previous blog post). In the abstract, some of the authors’ conclusions are summarized as follows:

… aggregate savings propensities should fall back as the bulge of high-saving middle-aged households moves through into retirement and starts to dissave; this process has already begun. And though Chinese financial integration still has some way to run, the net flow of Chinese savings into global financial markets has already started to ebb as the pattern of Chinese growth rotates towards domestic demand rather than net exports. Finally, the shifts in portfolio preferences may partially unwind as investor confidence slowly returns. But … the time scale over which such a rebound in real interest rates will be manifest is highly uncertain and will be influenced by longer-term fiscal and structural policy choices.

One chapter in the report discusses the Japanese experience.

Long-Term Interest Rates, Now and Then

A report by the White House Council of Economic Advisors surveys long-term interest rates. The “key takeaways” include:

Real and nominal interest rates in the United States have been on a steady decline since the mid-1980s. Declining interest rates are a global phenomenon. … [F]orecasters largely missed the secular decline of the last three decades.

The Ramsey growth model implies a link between labor productivity growth, per capita consumption growth and the real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate. Historically, periods of low real long-term interest rates have tended to coincide with low labor productivity growth. Projections of labor productivity growth, while imprecise, suggest 10-year real interest rates in the range of 1.5 to 3.5 per cent.

Asset-pricing models that incorporate risk suggest that the long-run nominal interest rate is the sum of expected future short-term real rates, expected future inflation rates, and a term premium. The 10-year rate in ten years that forward transactions in nominal Treasuries imply is currently 3.1 percent. Forward transactions in the market for TIPS suggest a long-term real rate just above 1.00 percent in ten years. Adding the CPI inflation rate implied by the Federal Reserve’s PCE inflation target would imply a forward nominal interest rate of 3.25 percent. The term premium in nominal Treasuries is currently estimated to be near zero, with a 2005-2014 mean of 1 percent. These components together suggest a 10-year nominal interest rate in the range of 3.1 (forward Treasuries) to 4.6 percent (based on FOMC forecasts of the long-run federal funds rate).

In a world with financially integrated national capital markets, the general level of world interest rates is determined by the equality of the global supply of saving and global investment demand. Capital markets of advanced economies are now tightly integrated while emerging market economies are becoming increasingly integrated into the global financial system. Low-income economies remain partially segmented from the global capital market. As a consequence of increasing international market integration, long-term real and nominal interest rates are increasingly moving in tandem and have declined along with U.S. rates. Nominal interest rates also tend to be correlated across countries though differences in inflation expectations can produce differences in nominal rates. In a world with uncertainty, global long-term real and nominal interest rates will include risk premiums that can reflect country-specific risk factors. Strong economic linkages, however, reinforce substantial correlation in countries’ long-term bond risk premiums.

Long-term interest rates are lower now than they were thirty years ago, reflecting an outward shift in the global supply curve of saving relative to global investment demand. It remains an open question whether the underlying factors producing current low rates are transitory, or imply long-run equilibrium long-term interest rates lower than before the financial crisis. Factors that are likely to dissipate over time—and therefore could lead to higher rates in the future—include current fiscal, monetary, and exchange rate policies; low-inflation risk as reflected in the term premium; and private-sector deleveraging in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Factors that are more likely to persist—suggesting that low interest rates could be a long-run phenomenon—include lower forecasts of global output and productivity growth, demographic shifts, global demand for safe assets outstripping supply, and the impact of tail risks and fundamental uncertainty.

Discounting Pension Liabilities

In a recent NBER working paper (“Discounting Pension Liabilities: Funding Versus Value”), Jeffrey Brown and George Pennacchi discuss the appropriate choice of discount factor to discount pension liabilities. They conclude that it depends.

… if the objective is to measure pension under- or over- funding, a default-free discount rate should always be used, even if the liabilities are themselves not default-free. If, instead, the objective is to determine the market value of pension benefits, then it is appropriate that discount rates incorporate default risk.

… the use of a default-free discount rate is informative to participants who want to know how much money the plan would need to be assured that the plan will be able to pay promised benefits. This would also be a relevant measure if the plan wished to offload its liabilities to an insurance company that intends to make good on the future benefit payments.

… there are also cases for which the market value of the liability is important. Current or potential plan participants might want to know the market value of pension liabilities (rather than the promised value) when they are making decisions about the value of pension benefits…

… the market value of the liability can have odd properties as a system of funding measurement: specifically, the size of the total (funded plus unfunded) liability can vary with the degree of funding, and that funding levels asymptotically approach 100 percent as assets approach zero.

Brown and George Pennacchi also discuss how the appropriate discount rate may be measured and how cost-of-living adjustments may be accounted for.