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Are high interest rates the new normal?

Bond markets are betting that they are but we will have to wait and see

Goodbye, inflation. Hello, unsustainable debt.

If you’ve spent any substantial amount of time engaged in discourse about the United States economy – and I, alas, have been at it for decades – you know that there’s always something to worry about.

At the start of 2023, the big worry was inflation, with many asserting that bringing it down to an acceptable rate would require a recession and a prolonged period of high unemployment.

What we’ve seen, however, is so-called immaculate disinflation as the economy works out its pandemic-era kinks. The Fed’s usual measure of underlying inflation ran at only 2.2 per cent (annualised) over the past three months, essentially back to its 2 per cent target.


And the latest data from the euro area suggest that immaculate disinflation is spreading across the Atlantic. It will be a while before the Fed and its counterparts abroad will dare to say it openly but inflation is looking like a solved problem.

Now the big worry is interest rates.

The Fed and other central banks essentially control short-term interest rates and have increased them a lot in their fight against inflation. For a while, however, bond markets were basically betting that these rate hikes would be, well, transitory and that short-term rates would soon come way back down.

As a result, long-term rates significantly lagged behind short-term figures, creating the famous inverted yield curve that many see as a sign of impending recession.

Over the past few months, however, the bond market has, in effect, capitulated, sending the signal that investors expect rates to stay high for a long time. Long-term interest rates are now higher than they have been since the 2008 financial crisis.

While the bond market is saying that high interest rates are here to stay, it’s not easy to see why that should be the case

What’s causing this interest rate spike? You might be tempted to see rising rates as a sign that investors are worried about inflation. That’s not the story, though.

We can infer market expectations of inflation from break-even rates, the spread between interest rates on ordinary bonds and on bonds indexed for changes in consumer prices; these rates show the market believes that inflation is under control.

What we’re seeing instead is a sharp rise in real interest rates – interest rates minus expected inflation.

At this point, real interest rates are well above 2 per cent, up from yields usually below 1 per cent before the pandemic. And if these higher rates are the new normal, they have huge and troubling implications.

Most notably, a number of economists – including Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and yours truly – have argued for years that low interest rates mean we shouldn’t worry about government debt.

In particular, if the real interest rate is lower than the economy’s growth rate, debt isn’t really a burden because the ratio of debt to gross domestic product tends to fall even if the government is running deficits.

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Indeed, in a low-rate world, budget deficits may actually be good. As Summers wrote in 2016: “By setting yields so low and bond prices so high, markets are sending a clear signal that they want more, not less, government debt.”

Now, suddenly, however, real interest rates are above most estimates of the economy’s long-run growth rate. If this reversal persists, the sustainability of high debt will become a big issue for the first time in many years.

So, is the low-interest era really over?

Full disclosure: I may not be an entirely trustworthy guide here. As a card-carrying member of the secular stagnation caucus – economists who believed pre-Covid that low interest rates and inadequate demand would be persistent economic issues – I have a vested interest in believing that the current rate spike is temporary. I try to avoid motivated reasoning but you should know that it’s a risk.

While the bond market is saying that high interest rates are here to stay, it’s not easy to see why that should be the case.

Before the pandemic, attempts to explain the decline in real interest rates since the early 2000s focused on forces leading to slowing economic growth and, hence, lower investment demand. In particular, many of us emphasised the big decline in growth of the working-age population.

Slow population growth means less need for new houses, less need for new shopping malls and less need for new factories and office buildings (leaving aside the effects of remote work).

And Japan, which has had a falling working-age population since the 1990s and also entered a reality of very low interest rates long before the rest of the advanced world, seemed to illustrate the point. (I made the connection between demography and ultralow interest rates in a 1998 paper – I would say the best paper I ever wrote – warning that other countries could experience Japan-style problems, which they did a decade later.)

Well, we still have low population growth, so why shouldn’t we expect interest rates to go back to pre-pandemic levels once the Fed is done fighting inflation?

Maybe we should. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York produces regular estimates of r-star, which it defines as “the real short-term interest rate expected to prevail when an economy is at full strength and inflation is stable”.

John Williams, the New York Fed’s president and one of the originators of its model, declared in a May speech that “r-star today is about where it was before the pandemic”.

My instinct is to say that the bond market is overreacting to recent data and that high interest rates, like high inflation, will be transitory

There are other models, however. The Richmond Fed has its own approach but reaches a very different conclusion: that r-star is higher than it was pre-pandemic.

The bond market has, in effect, been voting that Richmond is right and New York is wrong. But why? I’ve seen some efforts to point to possible fundamental factors but they seem a bit halfhearted.

Mainly, as far as I can tell, investors are looking at the economy’s resilience in the face of Fed rate hikes and concluding that this must mean that r-star has risen for some reason, even if we can’t put our finger on it.

This might be true. Or the economy’s resilience so far may reflect lags in the effect of monetary policy or other factors that won’t persist.

My instinct is to say that the bond market is overreacting to recent data and that high interest rates, like high inflation, will be transitory. But as I said, that’s what I’d like to believe so maybe you shouldn’t trust me here.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times