Le long mystère des faibles taux d’intérêt

CAMBRIDGE – Alors que les décideurs et les investisseurs continuent à s'inquiéter des risques posés par les taux d'intérêt mondiaux ultra-faibles actuels, les économistes universitaires continuent à débattre sur les causes sous-jacentes. A l'heure actuelle, tout le monde se range désormais sous l’une ou l’autre version de la déclaration de 2005 de Ben Bernanke, président de la Réserve fédérale américaine, selon laquelle un « excès d'épargne mondiale » est à la racine du problème. Mais les économistes ne s'entendent pas sur l’origine de cet excès, combien de temps la situation va-t-elle durer, et, plus fondamentalement, est-ce qu’il s’agit d’une bonne chose.

Le discours original de Bernanke soulignait plusieurs facteurs – certains réduisant la demande d'épargne mondiale et d'autres en augmentant l'offre. Dans les deux cas, les taux d'intérêt devaient baisser pour équilibrer les marchés obligataires mondiaux. Il expliquait que la crise financière asiatique de la fin des années 1990 avait fait s’effondrer la demande vorace d'investissement de la région, tout en poussant les gouvernements asiatiques à accumuler des actifs liquides à titre de couverture contre une autre crise. Bernanke soulignait également une augmentation de l'épargne pension de la population vieillissante en Allemagne et au Japon, ainsi que de l’épargne des pays exportateurs de pétrole, qui connaissaient une croissance rapide de leur population et une incertitude sur les revenus du pétrole à long terme.

La politique monétaire, soit dit en passant, n'avait pas une place importante dans le diagnostic de Bernanke. Comme la plupart des économistes, il estime que, si les décideurs tentent de maintenir les taux d'intérêt à des niveaux artificiellement bas pendant trop longtemps, la demande et l'inflation finiront par monter en flèche. Donc, si l'inflation est faible et stable, on ne peut pas reprocher aux banques centrales de maintenir des taux de long terme trop bas.

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