Many economic commentators believe that interest rates in America and around the world are “artificially low”. Indeed, I too have used the term in the past to refer to the condition in Europe that saw interest rates across the member states converge to a uniformly low level at the introduction of the Euro, only to diverge and soar in the periphery during the ongoing crisis.
So what is an interest rate? An interest rate is the cost of money now. As Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk noted, interest rates result from people valuing money in the present more highly than money in the future. If a business is starting out, and has insufficient capital to carry out its plans it will seek investment, either through selling equity in the ownership of the business, or through credit from lenders. For a lender, an interest rate is their profit for giving up the spending power of their capital to another who desires it now, attached to the risk that the borrower will default.
In monetary economies, money tends to be distributed relatively scarcely. In a commodity-based monetary system, the level of scarcity is determined by the physical limits of how much of a commodity can be pulled out of the ground. In a fiat-based monetary system, there is no such natural scarcity, but money’s relative scarcity is controlled by the banking system and central bank that lends it into the economy. If money was distributed infinitely widely and freely, there would be no such thing as an interest rate as there would be no cost to obtaining money now, just as there is no cost to obtaining a widely-distributed and freely-available commodity like air (at least on the face of the Earth!). Without scarcity money would lose its usability as a currency, as there is no incentive to trade for a substance which is uniformly and effectively infinitely available to everyone. So an interest rate is not only the cost of money, but also a symptom of its scarcity (and, as Keynes pointed out, a key mechanism through which rentiers profit).
So, where does the idea that interest rates can be made artificially low or artificially high arise from?
The notion of an artificially low or high interest rate implies the existence of a natural interest rate, from which the market rate diverges. It is a widely-held notion, and indeed, Ron Paul made reference to the notion of a natural rate of interest in his debate with Paul Krugman last year. A widely-used definition of the “natural rate of interest” appears in Wicksell (1898):
There is a certain rate of interest on loans which is neutral in respect to commodity prices, and tends neither to raise nor to lower them.
This is easy to define and hard to calculate. It is whatever interest rate yields a zero-percent inflationary level. Because interest rates have a nonlinear relationship with inflation, it is difficult to say precisely what the natural interest rate is at any given time, but Wicksell’s definition specifies that a positive inflation rate means the market rate is above the natural rate, and a negative inflation rate means the market is below the natural rate. (Interestingly, it should be noted that the historical Federal Funds Rate comes pretty close to loosely approximating the historical difference between 0 and the CPI rate, despite questions of whether the CPI really reflects the true price level due to not including housing and equity markets which often record much greater gains or greater losses than consumer prices).
The notion of a natural rate of interest is interesting and helpful — certainly, high levels of inflation can be challenged through decreasing interest rates (or more generally increasing credit-availability), and deflation can be challenged by decreasing interest rates (or more generally increasing credit availability). If the goal of monetary policy is price stability, then the notion of a “natural interest rate” as a guide for monetary policy is useful.
But policies of macrostabilisation have been strongly questioned by the work of Hyman Minsky, which posited the idea that stability is itself destabilising, because it leads to overconfidence which itself results in malinvestment and credit and price bubbles.
Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) developed by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, most influentially in Mises’ 1912 work The Theory of Money and Credit, theorises that the business cycle is caused by credit expansion (often fuelled by excessively low interest rates) which pours into unsustainable projects. The end of this credit expansion (as a result of a collapse resulting from excessive leverage, or from the failure of unsustainable projects, or from general overproduction, or for some other reason) results in a panic and bust. According to ABCT, the underlying issue is that the banking system made money cheaply available, and the market rate of interest falls beneath the natural rate of interest, manifesting as price inflation.
I do not dispute the idea that bubbles tend to coincide with credit expansion and easy lending. But it is tough to say whether credit expansion is a consequence or a cause of the bubble. What is the necessary precursor of an unsustainable credit expansion? Overconfidence, and the idea that prices will just keep going up when sooner or later the credit expansion will run out steam. This could be the overconfidence of central bankers, who believe that macrostabilisation policies have produced a “Great Moderation”, or the overconfidence of traders who hope to get rich quick, or the overconfidence of homeowners who see rising home prices as an easy opportunity to remortgage and consume more, or the overconfidence of private banks who hope to make bumper gains on loans or loan-related securities (Carl Menger noted that fractional reserve banking and credit-fuelled bubbles originated in economies with no central bank, in contradiction of those ABCT-advocates who go so far as to say that without central banking there would be no business cycle at all).
And is price stability really “natural”? Wicksell (and other advocates of a “natural rate of interest” like RBCT and certain Austrians) seem to imply so. But why should it be the norm that prices are stable? In competitive markets — like modern day high-tech markets — the tendency may be toward deflation rather than stability, as improving technology lowers manufacturing costs, and firms lower prices to stay competitive with each other. Or in markets for scarce goods — like commodities of which there exists a limited quantity — the tendency may be toward inflation, as producers may have to spend more to extract difficult-to-extract resources form the ground. Ultimately, human action in market activity is unpredictable and determined by the subjective preferences of all market participants, and this applies as much to the market for money as it does for any market. There is no reason to believe that prices tend toward stability, and the empirical record shows a significant level of variation in price levels under both the gold standard and the modern fiat system.
Ultimately, if interest rates are the cost of money, and in a fiat monetary system the quantity and availability of money is determined by lending institutions and the central bank, how can any interest rate not be artificial (i.e. an expression of the subjective opinions, forecasts and plans of those involved in determining the availability of credit and money including governments and central bankers)? Even under a commodity-money system, the availability of money is still determined by the lending system, as well as the miners who pull the monetary commodity or commodities out of the ground (and any legal tender laws that define money, for example monetising gold and demonetising silver).
And if all interest rates in contemporary markets are to some degree artificial this raises some difficult questions, because it means that the availability of capital, and thus the profitability (or unprofitability) of rentiers are effectively policy choices of the state (or the central bank).