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Chart: The Downward Spiral in Interest Rates

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During the onset of an economic crisis, national governments are thought to have two chief policy tools at their disposal:

  1. Fiscal Policy
    How the central government collects money through taxation, and how it spends that money
  2. Monetary Policy
    How central banks choose to manage the supply of money and interest rates

Major fiscal policy changes can take time to be implemented — but since central banks can make moves unilaterally, monetary policy is often the first line of defense in settling markets.

As the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, central banks have been quick to act in slashing interest rates. However, with rates already sitting at historic lows before the crisis, it is possible that banks may be forced to employ more unconventional and controversial techniques to try and calm the economy as time goes on.

The Fed: Firing at Will

The most meaningful rate cuts happened on March 3rd and March 15th after emergency meetings in the United States.

First, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cut the target rate from 1.5% to 1.0% — and then on Sunday (March 15th) the rate got chopped by an entire percentage point to rub up against the lower bound of zero.

Fed rate cuts historical

As you can see on the chart, this puts us back into familiar territory: a policy environment analogous to that seen during the recovery from the financial crisis.

ZIRP or NIRP?

It’s been awhile, but with interest rates again bumping up against the lower bound, you’ll begin to see discussions pop up again about the effectiveness of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and even negative interest rate policy (NIRP).

Although the latter has been used by some European banks in recent years, NIRP has never been experimented with in the United States or Canada.

Here’s a quick primer on both:

NIRP and ZIRP

With rates sitting at zero, it’s not impossible for the Fed and other central banks to begin toying more seriously with the idea of negative rates. Such a move would be bold, but also seen as highly experimental and risky with unforeseen consequences.

Global Rate Slashing

Since only the beginning of March, the world’s central banks have cut interest rates on 37 separate occasions.

The only exception to this rule was the National Bank of Kazakhstan, which raised its key rate by 2.75% to support its currency in light of current oil prices. Even so, the Kazakhstani tenge has lost roughly 15% of its value against the U.S. dollar since February.

Here’s a look at cumulative interest rate cuts by some of the world’s most important central banks, from January 1, 2020 until today:

Central Bank Moves YTD

Going into the year, rates in developed economies were already between 0% and 2%.

Despite not having much room to work with, banks have slashed rates where they can — and now out of major developed economies, Canada has the “highest” interest rate at just 0.75%.

Helicopters on the Horizon

With central banks running out of ammo for the use of traditional measures, the conversation is quickly shifting to unconventional measures such as “helicopter money” and NIRP.

Life is already surreal as societal measures to defend against the spread of COVID-19 unfold; pretty soon, monetary measures taken around the globe may seem just as bizarre.

Put another way, unless something changes fast and miraculously, we could be moving into an unprecedented monetary environment where up is down, and down is up. At that point, it’s anybody’s guess as to how things will shake out going forward.

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Central Banks

The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

A visual breakdown of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion package to provide COVID-19 economic relief. It’s the largest stimulus bill in modern history.

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The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

The unprecedented response to the COVID-19 pandemic has prioritized keeping people apart to slow the spread of the virus. While measures such as business closures and travel restrictions are effective at fighting a pandemic, they also have a dramatic impact on the economy.

To help right the ship, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — also known as the CARES Act — was passed by U.S. lawmakers last week with little fanfare. The act became the largest economic stimulus bill in modern history, more than doubling the stimulus act passed in 2009 during the Financial Crisis.

Today’s Sankey diagram is a visual representation of where the $2 trillion will be spent. Broadly speaking, there are five components to the COVID-19 stimulus bill:

CategoryTotal AmountShare of the Package
Individuals / Families$603.7 billion30%
Big Business$500.0 billion25%
Small Business$377.0 billion19%
State and Local Government$340.0 billion17%
Public Services$179.5 billion9%

Although the COVID-19 stimulus bill is incredibly complex, here are some of the most important parts to be aware of.

Funds for Individuals

Amount: $603.7 billion – 30% of total CARES Act

In order to stimulate the sputtering economy quickly, the U.S. government will deploy “helicopter money” — direct cash payments to individuals and families.

The centerpiece of this plan is a $1,200 direct payment for those earning up to $75,000 per year. For higher earners, payment amounts will phase out, ending altogether at the $99,000 income level. Families will also receive $500 per child.

There are three other key things to know about this portion of the stimulus funds:

  1. There will be a temporary suspension for any student loan held by the federal government. This means no payments required and no interest accrued until the end of September, 2020.
  2. Borrowers with federally backed loans can request forbearance on mortgage payments for up to six months.
  3. There will be an expansion of unemployment benefits, including a four-month enhancement of benefits. This plan includes freelancers, workers in the gig economy, and furloughed employees.

Big Business

Amount: $500.0 billion – 25% of total CARES Act

This component of the package is aimed at stabilizing big businesses in hard-hit sectors.

The most obvious industry to receive support will be the airlines. About $58 billion has been earmarked for commercial and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors. Perhaps in response to recent criticism of the industry, companies receiving stimulus money will be barred from engaging in stock buybacks for the term of the loan plus one year.

One interesting pathway highlighted by today’s Sankey diagram is the $17 billion allocated to “maintaining national security”. While this provision doesn’t mention any specific company by name, the primary recipient is believed to be Boeing.

The bill also indicates that an inspector general will oversee the recovery process, along with a special committee.

Small Business

Amount: $377.0 billion – 19% of total CARES Act

To ease the strain on businesses around the country, the Small Business Administration (SBA) will be given $350 billion to provide loans of up to $10 million to qualifying organizations. These funds can be used for mission critical activities, such as paying rent or keeping employees on the payroll during COVID-19 closures.

As well, the bill sets aside $10 billion in grants for small businesses that need help covering short-term operating costs.

State and Local Governments

Amount: $340.0 billion – 17% of total CARES Act

The biggest portion of funds going to local and state governments is the $274 billion allocated towards direct COVID-19 response. The rest of the funds in this component will go to schools and child care services.

Public and Health Services

Amount: $179.5 billion – 9% of total CARES Act

The biggest slice of this pie goes to healthcare providers, who will receive $100 billion in grants to help fight COVID-19. This was a major ask from groups representing the healthcare industry, as they look to make up the lost revenue caused by focusing on the outbreak — as opposed to performing elective surgeries and other procedures. There will also be a 20% increase in Medicare payments for treating patients with the virus.

Money is also set aside for initiatives such as increasing the availability of ventilators and masks for the Strategic National Stockpile, as well as providing additional funding for the Center for Disease Control and expanding the reach of virtual doctors.

Finally, beyond the healthcare-related funding, the CARES Act also addresses food security programs and a long list of educational and arts initiatives.

Hat tip to Reddit user SevenandForty for inspiring this graphic.

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Visualizing the 700-Year Fall of Interest Rates

Could interest rates enter negative territory permanently? This chart plots trend data over 700 years, showing that it could be a possibility.

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eight centuries interest rates

Visualizing the 700-Year Decline of Interest Rates

How far can interest rates fall?

Currently, many sovereign rates sit in negative territory, and there is an unprecedented $10 trillion in negative-yielding debt. This new interest rate climate has many observers wondering where the bottom truly lies.

Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England (BOE), shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.

The Evidence on Falling Rates

Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.

Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.

Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018

%1300s1400s1500s1600s1700s1800s1900s2000s
Nominal rate7.311.27.85.44.13.55.03.5
Inflation2.22.11.70.80.60.03.12.2
Real rate5.19.16.14.63.53.42.01.3

*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers

Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.

The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.

Current Theories

Why have interest rates been trending downward for so long?

Here are the three prevailing theories as to why they’re dropping:

1. Productivity Growth

Since 1970, productivity growth has slowed. A nation’s productive capacity is determined by a number of factors, including labor force participation and economic output.

If total economic output shrinks, real rates will decline too, theory suggests. Lower productivity growth leads to lower wage growth expectations.

In addition, lower productivity growth means less business investment, therefore a lower demand for capital. This in turn causes the lower interest rates.

2. Demographics

Demographics impact interest rates on a number of levels. The aging population—paired with declining fertility levels—result in higher savings rates, longer life expectancies, and lower labor force participation rates.

In the U.S., baby boomers are retiring at a pace of 10,000 people per day, and other advanced economies are also seeing comparable growth in retirees. Theory suggests that this creates downward pressure on real interest rates, as the number of people in the workforce declines.

3. Economic Growth

Dampened economic growth can also have a negative impact on future earnings, pushing down the real interest rate in the process. Since 1961, GDP growth among OECD countries has dropped from 4.3% to 3% in 2018.

Larry Summers referred to this sloping trend since the 1970s as “secular stagnation” during an International Monetary Fund conference in 2013.

Secular stagnation occurs when the economy is faced with persistently lagging economic health. One possible way to address a declining interest rate conundrum, Summers has suggested, is through expansionary government spending.

Bond Yields Declining

According to the report, another trend has coincided with falling interest rates: declining bond yields.

Since the 1300s, global nominal bonds yields have dropped from over 14% to around 2%.

bond yields declining

The graph illustrates how real interest rates and bond yields appear to slope across a similar trend line. While it may seem remarkable that interest rates keep falling, this phenomenon shows that a broader trend may be occurring—across centuries, asset classes, and fiscal regimes.

In fact, the historical record would imply that we will see ever new record lows in real rates in future business cycles in the 2020s/30s

-Paul Schmelzing

Although this may be fortunate for debt-seekers, it can create challenges for fixed income investors—who may seek alternatives strategies with higher yield potential instead.

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