A few months ago, I tagged along with my wife and daughter as they went on a tour of the Federal Reserve Building in downtown New York. While the highlight of the tour is that you get to see large stacks of US dollars in the basement of the building, I considered making myself persona non grata with my immediate family by asking the guide (a very nice Fed employee) about the location of the interest rate room. That, of course, is the room where Janet Yellen comes in every morning and sets interest rates. I am sure that you can visualize her pulling the levers that sets T.Bond rates, mortgage rates and corporate rates and the power that comes with that act. If that sounds over the top, that is the impression you are left with, not only from reading news stories about central banks, but also from opinion pieces from some economists and investment advisors. I know that investors, analysts and CFOs are all rendered off balance by low interest rates, but I will argue that the techniques that they use to compensate are more likely to get them in trouble than solve their problems.
The what: Interest rates are at historic lows across the globe
There is little to debate. Interest rates are lower than they have been in a generation and you can see it in this graph of the US 10-year treasury bond rate going back several decades:
But it is not just the US dollar where low interest rates prevail, as illustrated by the German government 10-year Euro bond rate, the Japanese government 10-year Yen bond rate and the Swiss Government 10-year Swiss franc rate trend lines:
[drizzle]In fact, on the Swiss Franc, the 10-year bond rates rates have not just dropped but have hit zero and kept going to -0.09%, leading to the almost unfathomable phenomenon of negative interest rates on long term borrowing. A world where savers have to pay banks to keep their savings and borrowers are paid money to borrow turns everything that we have learned in economics on its head and it is therefore no surprise that even seasoned investors and analysts are unsure of what to do next.
The why: Its not just central banks
Why are interest rates so low? I know that the conventional wisdom is that it is central bank policy that has driven them there, but is that true? To answer that question, I decided to do go back to basics.
While market interest rates are set by demand and supply, as they are in any other market, there are fundamentals that determine that rate. In particular, the interest rate on an investment with no default risk (a guaranteed or risk free investment) can be written as the sum of two components:
Interest rate on a guaranteed investment = Expected inflation + Expected real interest rate
This is the simplified version of the classic Fisher equation and it is true by construction. In fact, many analysts use it to decompose market interest rates; thus if the US treasury bond rate is at 2.00% and expected inflation is 1.25%, the real interest rate is backed out at 0.75%. In the long term, I would argue that a real interest rate has to be backed up by a real growth rate in the economy. After all, you cannot deliver a 2% real interest rate in an economy growing at only 1% a year in the long term, though you can get short term deviations between the two numbers. Thus, in the long term, the interest rate on a guaranteed investment can be rewritten as:
Interest rate on a guaranteed investment = Expected inflation + Expected real growth rate
How well does this simplistic equation hold up in practice? Testing it is hard, especially when you can observe only actual inflation and real growth but not expected inflation and real growth. However, we also know that expectations for inflation and real growth are driven, for better or worse, by recent history; thus expected inflation increases after periods of high inflation and decreases after periods of low inflation, thus making actual inflation and real growth reasonable proxies for expected values. The final number we need to test out this relationship is the interest rate on a guaranteed investment, and we use the US 10-year treasury bond rate as the stand in for that number, with the concession that the last 5 years have shaken investor faith in the guarantee.
Even if you take issue with my proxies for expected inflation (the actual inflation rate in the US each year, as measured by the CPI), real growth (the real growth rate in US GDP and the interest rate on a guaranteed investment, the graph sends a powerful message that risk free rates are driven by inflation and real growth expectations. If expected inflation is low and real growth is anemic, as has been the case since 2008, interest rates will be low as well and they would have been low, with or without central bank intervention.
The Central Bank Effect
Do central banks have influence over interest rates? Of course, but the mechanisms they use are surprisingly limited. In the United States, the only rate that the Fed sets is the Fed Funds rate, a rate at which banks can borrow or lend money overnight. Thus, if the Fed wants to raise (lower) interest rates, it has historically hiked (cut) the Fed Funds rate and hoped that bond markets (treasury and corporate) respond accordinly. One way to measure the effect of Fed action is to compute the difference between the actual US treasury bond rate each period and the “intrinsic” treasury bond rate (computed as the sum of inflation and real GDP growth that year):
Note that the Fed Funds rate hit zero in 2009 and has stayed there for the last five years, effectively eliminating it as a tool for controlling rates. Perhaps driven by desperation and partly motivated by the savior complex, the Fed has turned to a relatively unused tool in its arsenal and bought large quantities of US treasury bond in the market for the last five years, the much-talked about Quantitative Easing (QE). While it is true that T.Bond rates have stayed below intrinsic interest rates over the last 5 years, the effect of QE (at least to my eyes) seems to modest.
As the economy comes back to life, all eyes have turned towards Janet Yellen and the Fed and Fed-watching has become the central focus for many investors. While that is understandable, it is worth remembering that in today’s economic environment, with low inflation and real growth, the removal of the Fed prop will not cause interest rates to pop to 5% or 6% . In fact,