The Subtle Tyranny of Interest Rates

Interest rates are the price of credit. They are the price of access to capital.

Now, it is obvious that pricing credit is not tyrannical in and of itself. Interest compensates a lender for default risk and the risk of inflation eroding the purchasing power of the money that they lend.

The tyranny I am getting at is subtle. It is the tyranny that Keynes pointed to when he proposed a euthanasia of the rentier. Keynes proposed that low interest rates would:

mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

Keynes pointed to an important feature of interest rates: the fact that capital has a cost is not just the result of default risk and the risk of inflation. It is also a result of the scarcity of capital.

Now, that is inevitable in a world where financial capital consists of metal that you dig up out of the ground.

But in our brave new state-backed fiat monetary system, why should capital be so scarce that those who have it can profit from its scarcity?

Obviously, central banks should not print money to the extent that it becomes worthless. But capital availability is absolutely critical to the advancement of society: the investment of capital is how societies become productive. It is how technology improves, and it is the key to wealth accumulation.

What Keynes didn’t specify was what exactly in the interest rate paid was the part that represented the “scarcity value” of capital.

Obviously, it doesn’t include the part that compensates for inflation, which is why we need to look at inflation-adjusted interest rates. And it isn’t the part that compensates for default risk. This is easily calculable too: it is the excess paid over lending to the monetary sovereign.

In the U.S. and Britain, that would be the American and British governments. In the eurozone — for complicated political reasons — there is no monetary sovereign exactly, but we might measure it by looking at it in terms of the spread against German government borrowing, because Germany seems to be the nation calling the lion’s share of the shots.

Here’s the real interest rate on U.S. 10-year government borrowing (I chose the 10-year because it is a benchmark, although I would have preferred to use a harmonized rate from across the yield curve.):


So what are we really seeing? The general trend is that real interest rates on U.S. government borrowing are overwhelmingly positive, with a few periodical exceptions where real rates on borrowing went a bit negative. This bias toward positive real interest rates on lending to the monetary sovereign, I would argue, is the rentier’s profit resulting from the scarcity of financial capital.

Year over year, that is going to compound heavily. It is these rentiers, I would argue, who should be euthanized. Not because they should be resented for doing well out of the system.  No. They should be euthanized because of the opportunity cost of devoting resources to enriching rentiers, resources that could be deployed productively elsewhere.

And how to euthanize the rentiers? Because we have identified what the rentier’s share is, the answer is very simple: making a real interest rate of zero on lending to the monetary sovereign an objective of monetary policy.

Update: After much debate, I have decided that euthanizing rentiers is not a matter for monetary policy, but a matter for fiscal policy. I have written another post discussing this.


How saving endangers the economy — and what to do about it

An impressive video featuring former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has been making the rounds.

Summers makes the case that the United States and other Western nations may have reached a state of permanent stagnation in growth and employment. In Japan, per capita incomes grew strongly until the 1990s, and since then they have been growing very weakly and intermittently. Summers cites Japan as an early example of what might occur elsewhere.

Japan’s stagnation is shocking — today, the Japanese economy is only half the size economists in the 1990s predicted it would be if it had continued on its pre-1990s growth trend. As Summers notes, in the U.S., growth is also well below its pre-crisis trend, and unemployment remains persistently high. More than 12 million people who want work and are actively looking cannot find it. That’s a very ugly situation.

Under normal conditions, central banks can lower interest rates on lending to banks as a way to encourage activity and fight unemployment. Lower rates make business projects easier to afford, and more business projects should mean more jobs. If an economic shock pushes the unemployment rate up, central banks can lower lending rates to ease conditions. And conversely, if economic conditions are overheating and inflation is pushing up above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent, interest rates can be hiked to encourage saving and discourage spending.

Yet in the current slump, unemployment has remained elevated even while interest rates have been at close to zero for four years while inflation has remained contained. This suggests that the interest rate level required to bring employment down significantly is actually below zero. Summers agrees:

Suppose that the short-term real interest rate that was consistent with full employment had fallen to negative 2 percent or negative 3 percent sometime in the middle of the last decade.

But central banks can’t lower interest rates below zero percent because people can just hold cash instead. Why invest if you’re going to lose money doing so?


A Visual Representation of the Zero Bound

I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between savings and interest rates in the economy. There are many theoretical models and constructs that purport to represent the relationship between savings and interest rates, but it is interesting to look at it from an empirical standpoint. This graph shows savings at depository institutions as a percentage of GDP against the Federal Funds Rate:


The actual cause of the desire to save rather than consume or invest is uncertain. Perhaps this is a demographic trend — with more people closing in on the retirement age, they seek to save more of their income for retirement. Perhaps it is a psychological trend — fear of investment in stock markets and bond markets, due to fear of corruption, or market crashes or a general distrust of corporations. Perhaps it is a shortage of “safe” assets — by engaging in quantitative easing, central banks are removing assets from markets and replacing them with base money, and deleveraging corporations are paying down rather than issuing new debt. Perhaps it is anticipation of deflation — people expecting that saved money will increase its purchasing power in future. Perhaps it is a combination of all these things and more. But whatever it is, we know that there is an extraordinary savings glut.

There have been a lot of assertions that interest rates at present are unnaturally or artificially low. Well, what can we expect in the context of such a glut of savings? Higher interest rates? Based on what?

There was a clear negative association between savings and interest rates up until interest rates fell to zero, while the savings rate continued to soar. Theoretically, lower interest rates ceteris paribus should inhibit the desire to save, by lowering the reward for doing so. But interest rates cannot fall below zero at least not within our current monetary system — there exist some theoretical proposals to break the zero bound using negative nominal interest rates, but these remain untested and controversial. Even tripling the monetary base — an act that Bernanke at least believes simulates an interest rate cut at the zero bound — has not discouraged the saving of greater and greater levels of the national income.

In the long run, the desire to save increasingly massive percentages of the national income will cool down. Sooner or later some externality will jolt the idle resources in the economy into action. But that is the long run. In the short run saving keeps soaring. Investors are not finding better investment opportunities for their savings and the structure of production does not appear to be adjusting very fast to open up new opportunities for all of that idle cash.