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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

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History of Interest Rates

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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Central Banks

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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Central Banks

$69 Trillion of World Debt in One Infographic

What share of government world debt does each country owe? See it all broken down in this stunning visualization.

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$69 Trillion of World Debt in One Infographic

Two decades ago, total government debt was estimated to sit at $20 trillion.

Since then, according to the latest figures by the IMF, the number has ballooned to $69.3 trillion with a debt to GDP ratio of 82% — the highest totals in human history.

Which countries owe the most money, and how do these figures compare?

The Regional Breakdown

Let’s start by looking at the continental level, to get an idea of how world debt is divided from a geographical perspective:

RegionDebt to GDPGross Debt (Millions of USD)% of Total World Debt
World81.8%$69,298100.0%
Asia and Pacific79.8%$24,12034.8%
North America100.4%$23,71034.2%
Europe74.2%$16,22523.4%
South America75.0%$2,6993.9%
Africa56.9%$1,3131.9%
Other37.1%$1,2311.8%

In absolute terms, over 90% of global debt is concentrated in North America, Asia Pacific, and Europe — meanwhile, regions like Africa, South America, and other account for less than 10%.

This is not surprising, since advanced economies hold most of the world’s debt (about 75.4%), while emerging or developing economies hold the rest.

World Debt by Country

Now let’s look at individual countries, according to data released by the IMF in October 2019.

It’s worth mentioning that the following numbers are representative of 2018 data, and that for a tiny subset of countries (i.e. Syria) we used the latest available numbers as an estimate.

RankCountryDebt to GDPGross Debt ($B)% of World Total
#1🇺🇸 United States104.3%$21,46531.0%
#2🇯🇵 Japan237.1%$11,78817.0%
#3🇨🇳 China, People's Republic of50.6%$6,7649.8%
#4🇮🇹 Italy132.2%$2,7444.0%
#5🇫🇷 France98.4%$2,7363.9%
#6🇬🇧 United Kingdom86.8%$2,4553.5%
#7🇩🇪 Germany61.7%$2,4383.5%
#8🇮🇳 India68.1%$1,8512.7%
#9🇧🇷 Brazil87.9%$1,6422.4%
#10🇨🇦 Canada89.9%$1,5402.2%
#11🇪🇸 Spain97.1%$1,3862.0%
#12🇲🇽 Mexico53.6%$6550.9%
#13🇰🇷 Korea, Republic of37.9%$6520.9%
#14🇦🇺 Australia41.4%$5880.8%
#15🇧🇪 Belgium102.0%$5430.8%
#16Netherlands52.4%$4790.7%
#17Argentina86.1%$4470.6%
#18Singapore113.6%$4140.6%
#19Greece184.9%$4040.6%
#20Austria73.8%$3370.5%
#21Indonesia30.1%$3080.4%
#22Portugal120.1%$2890.4%
#23Poland48.9%$2860.4%
#24Switzerland40.5%$2860.4%
#25Ireland63.7%$2440.4%
#26Russian Federation14.6%$2420.3%
#27Turkey30.2%$2330.3%
#28Egypt92.7%$2310.3%
#29Pakistan71.7%$2260.3%
#30Israel60.8%$2250.3%
#31Sweden38.5%$2140.3%
#32Thailand42.1%$2130.3%
#33South Africa56.7%$2090.3%
#34Taiwan Province of China35.1%$2070.3%
#35Malaysia55.6%$1990.3%
#36Venezuela182.4%$1800.3%
#37Norway40.0%$1740.3%
#38Colombia52.2%$1730.2%
#39Finland59.3%$1630.2%
#40Saudi Arabia19.0%$1490.2%
#41Iran32.2%$1440.2%
#42Vietnam55.6%$1340.2%
#43Philippines38.9%$1290.2%
#44Denmark34.3%$1210.2%
#45Hungary70.8%$1140.2%
#46Iraq49.3%$1110.2%
#47Nigeria27.3%$1090.2%
#48Bangladesh34.0%$98.10.14%
#49Angola89.0%$94.30.14%
#50Qatar48.6%$93.00.13%
#51Romania36.7%$87.90.13%
#52Lebanon151.0%$85.10.12%
#53Czech Republic32.6%$79.90.12%
#54United Arab Emirates19.1%$79.10.11%
#55Ukraine60.2%$78.80.11%
#56Morocco65.0%$77.00.11%
#57Chile25.6%$76.30.11%
#58Sri Lanka83.3%$74.10.11%
#59Sudan212.1%$72.70.10%
#60Algeria38.3%$66.50.10%
#61New Zealand29.8%$60.50.09%
#62Peru26.1%$58.80.08%
#63Puerto Rico55.5%$56.10.08%
#64Kenya60.1%$52.80.08%
#65Slovak Republic48.9%$52.10.08%
#66Ecuador45.8%$49.60.07%
#67Ethiopia61.0%$49.00.07%
#68Croatia74.6%$45.40.07%
#69Dominican Republic50.5%$43.20.06%
#70Oman53.4%$42.30.06%
#71Jordan94.4%$39.90.06%
#72Ghana59.3%$38.90.06%
#73Slovenia70.4%$38.10.05%
#74Uruguay63.5%$37.90.05%
#75Kazakhstan21.0%$36.30.05%
#76Bahrain94.7%$35.70.05%
#77Costa Rica53.5%$32.30.05%
#78Tunisia77.0%$30.70.04%
#79Belarus47.8%$28.50.04%
#80Serbia54.5%$27.50.04%
#81Myanmar38.2%$26.20.04%
#82Panama39.5%$25.70.04%
#83Cyprus102.5%$25.10.04%
#84Côte d'Ivoire53.2%$22.90.03%
#85Bolivia53.8%$21.80.03%
#86Tanzania37.3%$21.20.03%
#87Zambia78.1%$20.90.03%
#88Kuwait14.7%$20.80.03%
#89Guatemala24.7%$19.40.03%
#90Lithuania34.2%$18.20.03%
#91Syria30.0%$18.00.03%
#92Yemen64.8%$17.90.03%
#93El Salvador67.1%$17.50.03%
#94Cameroon39.1%$15.10.02%
#95Luxembourg21.4%$14.90.02%
#96Jamaica94.4%$14.60.02%
#97Senegal61.6%$14.50.02%
#98Mozambique99.8%$14.40.02%
#99Bulgaria20.4%$13.30.02%
#100Latvia35.9%$12.50.02%
#101Turkmenistan29.1%$11.90.02%
#102Uganda41.4%$11.60.02%
#103Albania69.9%$10.50.02%
#104Uzbekistan20.6%$10.40.02%
#105Lao P.D.R.57.2%$10.40.01%
#106Gabon60.7%$10.20.01%
#107Congo, Republic of87.8%$10.20.01%
#108Trinidad and Tobago45.1%$10.20.01%
#109Iceland37.6%$9.80.01%
#110Honduras40.2%$9.60.01%
#111Mauritius66.2%$9.40.01%
#112Paraguay21.5%$9.00.01%
#113Azerbaijan18.8%$8.80.01%
#114Nepal30.2%$8.80.01%
#115Papua New Guinea35.5%$8.20.01%
#116Bahamas, The63.3%$7.90.01%
#117Zimbabwe37.1%$7.80.01%
#118Georgia44.9%$7.30.01%
#119Congo, Dem. Rep. of the15.3%$7.20.01%
#120Cambodia28.6%$7.00.01%
#121Bosnia and Herzegovina34.3%$6.90.01%
#122Namibia45.8%$6.60.01%
#123Malta45.2%$6.60.01%
#124Mali37.3%$6.40.01%
#125Barbados125.7%$6.40.01%
#126Armenia51.3%$6.40.01%
#127Burkina Faso42.9%$6.10.01%
#128Equatorial Guinea43.3%$5.90.01%
#129Benin41.0%$5.90.01%
#130Madagascar45.7%$5.50.01%
#131Chad48.3%$5.30.01%
#132North Macedonia40.5%$5.10.01%
#133Niger53.8%$5.00.01%
#134Nicaragua37.2%$4.90.01%
#135Guinea38.2%$4.60.01%
#136Kyrgyz Republic56.0%$4.50.01%
#137Mauritania82.9%$4.30.01%
#138Malawi62.9%$4.30.01%
#139Togo76.2%$4.10.01%
#140Montenegro72.6%$4.00.01%
#141Rwanda40.7%$3.90.01%
#142Maldives68.0%$3.60.01%
#143Tajikistan47.9%$3.60.01%
#144Eritrea174.3%$3.50.01%
#145Moldova29.7%$3.40.00%
#146Haiti33.3%$3.20.00%
#147Bhutan102.4%$2.60.00%
#148Sierra Leone63.0%$2.60.00%
#149Estonia8.3%$2.60.00%
#150Fiji46.2%$2.60.00%
#151Suriname72.8%$2.50.00%
#152Cabo Verde124.5%$2.50.00%
#153Aruba84.5%$2.40.00%
#154Botswana12.1%$2.30.00%
#155Guyana52.9%$2.10.00%
#156Burundi58.4%$2.00.00%
#157South Sudan, Republic of42.2%$1.90.00%
#158Belize95.2%$1.80.00%
#159Eswatini35.2%$1.70.00%
#160Antigua and Barbuda89.5%$1.40.00%
#161Gambia, The86.6%$1.40.00%
#162Djibouti48.0%$1.40.00%
#163Afghanistan6.9%$1.40.00%
#164Kosovo17.0%$1.40.00%
#165Liberia39.9%$1.30.00%
#166San Marino77.9%$1.30.00%
#167Saint Lucia64.3%$1.20.00%
#168Lesotho44.5%$1.20.00%
#169Central African Republic49.9%$1.10.00%
#170Guinea-Bissau64.3%$0.90.00%
#171Seychelles56.9%$0.90.00%
#172Grenada63.5%$0.80.00%
#173Saint Vincent and the Grenadines74.5%$0.60.00%
#174Saint Kitts and Nevis60.5%$0.60.00%
#175Vanuatu51.4%$0.50.00%
#176Samoa50.3%$0.40.00%
#177Dominica74.1%$0.40.00%
#178Hong Kong SAR0.1%$0.40.00%
#179Brunei Darussalam2.6%$0.40.00%
#180São Tomé and Príncipe74.5%$0.30.00%
#181Comoros21.0%$0.20.00%
#182Timor-Leste6.1%$0.20.00%
#183Solomon Islands9.4%$0.10.00%
#184Micronesia, Fed. States of20.3%$0.10.00%
#185Nauru58.3%$0.10.00%
#186Marshall Islands25.2%$0.10.00%
#187Kiribati20.6%$0.00.00%
#188Tuvalu28.1%$0.00.00%

In absolute terms, the most indebted nation is the United States, which has a gross debt of $21.5 trillion according to the IMF as of 2018.

If you’re looking for a more precise figure for 2019, the U.S. government’s “Debt to the Penny” dataset puts the amount owing to exactly $23,015,089,744,090.63 as of November 12, 2019.

Of course, the U.S. is also the world’s largest economy in nominal terms, putting the debt to GDP ratio at 104.3%

Other stand outs from the list above include Japan, which has the highest debt to GDP ratio (237.1%), and China , which has increased government debt by almost $2 trillion in just the last two years. Meanwhile, the European economies of Italy and Belgium check the box as other large debtors with ratios topping 100% debt to GDP.

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