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Losing Interest

BERKELEY – Two of the world’s most prominent economic institutions, the International Monetary Fund and Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, recently warned that the global economy may be facing an extended period of low interest rates. Why is that a bad thing, and what can be done about it?

Adjusted for inflation, interest rates have been falling for three decades, and their current low level encourages investors, searching for yield, to take on additional risk. Low rates also leave central banks little room for loosening monetary policy in a slowdown, because nominal interest cannot fall below zero. And they are symptomatic of an economy that is out of sorts.

Identifying the problem, much less prescribing solutions, requires diagnosing underlying causes. And here, unfortunately, economists do not agree. Some point to an increase in global saving, attributable mainly to high-saving emerging markets. Readers will detect here echoes of the “savings glut” argument popularized nearly a decade ago by the likes of former US Federal Reserve Board Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke.