The Long Mystery of Low Interest Rates

CAMBRIDGE – As policymakers and investors continue to fret over the risks posed by today’s ultra-low global interest rates, academic economists continue to debate the underlying causes.  By now, everyone accepts some version of US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s statement in 2005 that a “global savings glut” is at the root of the problem. But economists disagree on why we have the glut, how long it will last, and, most fundamentally, on whether it is a good thing.

Bernanke’s original speech emphasized several factors – some that decreased the demand for global savings, and some that increased supply. Either way, interest rates would have to fall in order for world bond markets to clear. He pointed to how the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990’s caused the region’s voracious investment demand to collapse, while simultaneously inducing Asian governments to stockpile liquid assets as a hedge against another crisis. Bernanke also pointed to increased retirement saving by aging populations in Germany and Japan, as well as to saving by oil-exporting countries, with their rapidly growing populations and concerns about oil revenues in the long term.

Monetary policy, incidentally, did not feature prominently in Bernanke’s diagnosis. Like most economists, he believes that if policymakers try to keep interest rates at artificially low levels for too long, eventually demand will soar and inflation will jump. So, if inflation is low and stable, central banks cannot be blamed for low long-term rates.

In fact, I strongly suspect that if one polled investors, monetary policy would be at the top of the list, not absent from it, as an explanation of low global long-term interest rates. The fact that so many investors hold this view ought to make one think twice before absolving monetary policy of all responsibility. Nevertheless, I share Bernanke’s instinct that, while central banks do set very short-term interest rates, they have virtually no influence over long-term real (inflation-adjusted) rates, other than a modest effect through portfolio management policies (for example, “quantitative easing”).