The Real Interest-Rate Risk

BEIJING – Since 2007, the financial crisis has pushed the world into an era of low, if not near-zero, interest rates and quantitative easing, as most developed countries seek to reduce debt pressure and perpetuate fragile payment cycles. But, despite talk of easy money as the “new normal,” there is a strong risk that real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates will rise in the next decade.

Total capital assets of central banks worldwide amount to $18 trillion, or 19% of global GDP – twice the level of ten years ago. This gives them plenty of ammunition to guide market interest rates lower as they combat the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. In the United States, the Federal Reserve has lowered its benchmark interest rate ten times since August 2007, from 5.25% to a zone between zero and 0.25%, and has reduced the discount rate 12 times (by a total of 550 basis points since June 2006), to 0.75%. The European Central Bank has lowered its main refinancing rate eight times, by a total of 325 basis points, to 0.75%. The Bank of Japan has twice lowered its interest rate, which now stands at 0.1%. And the Bank of England has cut its benchmark rate nine times, by 525 points, to an all-time low of 0.5%.

But this vigorous attempt to reduce interest rates is distorting capital allocation. The US, with the world’s largest deficits and debt, is the biggest beneficiary of cheap financing. With the persistence of Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, safe-haven effects have driven the yield of ten-year US Treasury bonds to their lowest level in 60 years, while the ten-year swap spread – the gap between a fixed-rate and a floating-rate payment stream – is negative, implying a real loss for investors.

The US government is now trying to repay old debt by borrowing more; in 2010, average annual debt creation (including debt refinance) moved above $4 trillion, or almost one-quarter of GDP, compared to the pre-crisis average of 8.7% of GDP. As this figure continues to rise, investors will demand a higher risk premium, causing debt-service costs to rise. And, once the US economy shows signs of recovery and the Fed’s targets of 6.5% unemployment and 2.5% annual inflation are reached, the authorities will abandon quantitative easing and force real interest rates higher.