Why Are Interest Rates So Low? Causes and Implications
Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer
At the Economic Club of New York, New York, New York
Federal Reserve, October 17, 2016
I am grateful to the Economic Club of New York for inviting me to speak today. My subject is the historically low level of interest rates, a topic not far from the minds of many in this audience and of many others in the United States and all over the world.1
Notwithstanding the increase in the federal funds rate last December, the federal funds rate remains at a very low level. Policy rates of many other major central banks are lower still–even negative in some cases, even in countries long famous for their conservative monetary policies. Long-term interest rates in many countries are also remarkably low, suggesting that participants in financial markets expect policy rates to remain depressed for years to come. My main objective today will be to present a quantitative assessment of some possible factors behind low interest rates–and also of factors that could contribute to higher interest rates in the future.
Now, I am sure that the reaction of many of you may be, “Well, if you and your Fed colleagues dislike low interest rates, why not just go ahead and raise them? You are the Federal Reserve, after all.” One of my goals today is to convince you that it is not that simple, and that changes in factors over which the Federal Reserve has little influence–such as technological innovation and demographics–are important factors contributing to both short- and long-term interest rates being so low at present.
There are at least three reasons why we should be concerned about such low interest rates. First, and most worrying, is the possibility that low long-term interest rates are a signal that the economy’s long-run growth prospects are dim. Later, I will go into more detail on the link between economic growth and interest rates. One theme that will emerge is that depressed long-term growth prospects put sustained downward pressure on interest rates. To the extent that low long-term interest rates tell us that the outlook for economic growth is poor, all of us should be very concerned, for–as we all know–economic growth lies at the heart of our nation’s, and the world’s, future prosperity.
A second concern is that low interest rates make the economy more vulnerable to adverse shocks that can put it in a recession. That is the problem of what used to be called thezero lower bound on interest rates. In light of several countries currently operating with negative interest rates, we now refer not to the zero lower bound, but to the effective lower bound, a number that is close to zero but negative. Operating close to the effective lower bound limits the room for central banks to combat recessions using their conventional interest rate tool–that is, by cutting the policy interest rate. And while unconventional monetary policies–such as asset purchases, balance sheet policies, and forward guidance–can provide additional accommodation, it is reasonable to think these alternatives are not perfect substitutes for conventional policy. The limitation on monetary policy imposed by low trend interest rates could therefore lead to longer and deeper recessions when the economy is hit by negative shocks.
And the third concern is that low interest rates may also threaten financial stability as some investors reach for yield and compressed net interest margins make it harder for some financial institutions to build up capital buffers. I should say that while this is a reason for concern and bears continual monitoring, the evidence so far does not suggest a heightened threat of financial instability in the post-financial-crisis United States stemming from ultralow interest rates. However, I note that a year ago the Fed did issue warnings–successful warnings–about the dangers of excessive leveraged lending, and concerns about financial stability are clearly on the minds of some members of the Federal Open Market Committee, FOMC.