Low Interest Rates: the Addictive Policy Drug of Choice

Satyajit Das, in today’s Financial Times, argues that low interest rates generate a variety of economic distortions that expand rather than address structural problems in economies (whether those of the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere.)  These effects are especially pernicious when real interest rates (that is market interest rates minus the expected inflation rate) are negative.  He provides a laundry list of “side effects” to this economic drug of choice.

1.  Encourages the substitution of capital for labor. Is it any surprise that employment has been slow to respond eventhough GDP is now higher than it was at the beginning of the last recession?

2. Encourage the substitution of debt for equity funding

3. Discourage savings, especially when real rates are negative.  Of course, if households have a particular wealth target, low rates could induce additional savings.

4. Create a funding gap for defined benefit pension plans (which means either reduced benefits or attempts to increase returns through more risky financing)

5. Feed asset price inflation through the purchase of risky assets (related to point 4)

6. Reduce the cost of holding money (which inhibits the flow of capital to worthwhile activities)

7. Allow banks to borrow cheaply (from depositors) and achieve their income targets through purchase of governmental securities rather than through lending to the private sector

8. Distort currency values as deviations in interest rates across countries is one of the drivers of short term capital flows

9. Induce a reliance on low interest rates to continuously fuel aggregate demand

For the most part, those who argue for extended periods of low interest rates believe that aggregate demand drives aggregate output. They tend to underplay the importance of structural change in the economy (such as labor market, regulatory, or tax policy reform); such change cannot be addressed by replacing depressed elements of aggregate demand with policy induced aggregate spending.  The day of reckoning is just extended, not cancelled.   Just ask the Europeans.