Friday, 21 November 2014

Interest Rates – Looking for the right temperature

The economic climate is changing but that may not necessarily mean that interest rates have to change too

Setting interest rates can be as frustrating as fiddling with the heating as the seasons change.  We can rely on the weather forecast as a guide to the outside conditions but it is harder to get a measure of whether the economy is running hot or cold.  This is particularly tricky at a time when some central banks are switching from policies to warm up the economy to measures for preventing the economy from overheating.  The poor economic outlook suggests that the current monetary policy measures may be here to stay despite calls for higher interest rates.

Neither too hot nor too cold

Interest rates are often raised or lowered to nudge the economy toward what is seen as an appropriate rate of growth.  Once the economy is humming along as it should (with inflation in check), interest rates are ideally set to a level that neither helps nor hinders economic growth.  This is the concept of neutral interest rates which should be higher for fast growing economies and lower for economies with weaker growth.  Not only are there differences between countries but the neutral interest rate for one particular country can change over time.

The neutral interest rates have been slipping downward for many countries as their prospects for growth deteriorate.  Many consumers as well as governments are focusing on paying back debt leaving less money to spend.  Companies are hoarding cash instead of investing which takes away another driver of growth.  With most developed countries suffering from the same problems, exports don’t offer much help either.  Even economic growth in China, which has been one of the few bright spots in the global economy, is likely to slow from a boil to a simmer as focus shifts from investment to consumption.

Turning up the heat

There are signs that the global economy is heating up in places.  The British economy is expected to expand by around 3.0% in 2014 while around 2.0% growth is forecast for the US economy.  Yet, the effects of this are not being felt by consumers due to stagnating wages and cuts to government spending.  Low inflation is a further indication that not all is well even these economic hot spots.  These mixed signals have prompted a cautious approach by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England who have kept interest rates at record lows close to zero.

The lingering hangover from the global financial crisis continues to hold back the economic recovery.  Consumers are less willing to take on debt after the disastrous results of the previous borrowing binge.  Any plans of investment are reigned amid worried about the prospects for the economy.  Proactive policies tend to go out the window as politics regresses to squabbling over limited government resources.   The likelihood for these factors to lower the neutral interest rates means that interest rates are unlikely to go up by much at all

Don’t touch that knob

Depending on the extent to which the neutral interest rates have fallen, it could even be argued that interest rates should stay close to zero until the medium term prospects improve.  There is no immediate reason for interest rates to be raised considering that the main concern of central banks, inflation, is not a concern.  Even looking forward, inflation is likely to remain subdued when factoring in falling commodity prices and weak wage growth.

Moreover, lending has not gotten out of hand except for in isolated sectors such as real estate in certain countries (such as the UK).  Other worries also include low rates of return pushing investors to chase after higher pay-outs by putting money into increasingly riskier investments.   Yet, these issues can be dealt with using targeted policies rather than relying solely on interest rates.  Higher interest rates are seen as helpful in that it will give central banks more capacity to respond in the case of another downturn.  But setting interest rates has less of an effect when the financial markets are awash with cash. 

Like a bickering couple arguing whether the heating is set too high or too low, expect the debate over the right level for interest rates to drag on.  Despite all this, it looks as if interest rates might be best left where they are for now.

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