Saturday, May 23, 2015

Very low rates are more worrying than you think

Never thought I'd see the day when Treasury willingly surrendered the leadership of the nation's economists to the Reserve Bank, but it happened this week.

The new Treasury secretary, John Fraser, has broken a tradition lasting more than two decades to speak about the budget at a luncheon of the Australian Business Economists on the following Tuesday.

This follows the absence of Budget Statement No. 4 from last week's budget papers. It's the statement I call Treasury's sermon, but a disappointed Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, calls Treasury's "thought leadership essay".

But Dr Philip Lowe, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, personfully stepped into the breach with a ground-breaking speech about "what seems to be a transition to a world in which global interest rates are lower, at least for an extended period, than we had previously become used to".

Does that sound like a good problem to have? Don't be so sure. Interest rates are two-edged: a cost to borrowers, but income to lenders. No one enjoys suffering a drop in their income, as many oldies have been reminding us lately.

The central banks of the US, the euro zone and Japan have for some years had their official (overnight) interest rates set at or near zero. At the other extreme, the yields (interest rates) on 10-year government bonds in these countries are at "extraordinary low levels".

These very low nominal rates mean savers investing in risk-free assets (government bonds) are earning negative real rates of return – because nominal rates are lower than the rate of inflation. "They also mean the time value of money is negative," Lowe says.

Huh? Say you win $10,000 in a lottery, but are offered the choice of receiving the money now or in three years time. Which would you pick?

Most people would want the money now. If you've got it now you can either use it to buy something and enjoy what you've bought for three years, or you can lend the money to someone else for three years and be rewarded by the interest you charge them.

When you think about all that, you realise the truth of the economists' saying that "a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow". That's the time value of money. The actual amount of that value is determined by the interest rate you could earn if you had the dollar today, or the rate you'd avoid having to pay to be able to spend today a dollar you didn't have.

This analysis isn't about the effects of inflation, but about the value of the use of money over time. So the time value of money is the real interest rate (the nominal interest rate minus the expected inflation rate).

Time value means that if I had to pay you $10,000 in three years time, the amount I'd have to set aside today would be less than that because the money I set aside could be earning interest between now and then.

If I knew the interest rate was, say, 4.5 per cent, I could work out how much I had to set aside today to have $10,000 in three years time. The process of working this out is called "discounting". It's compound interest in reverse.

The initial amount you'd need turns out to be $8763, which is called the "present value" of $10,000 in three years.

All this is standard stuff for economists and business people evaluating investment projects or managing invested funds. It's deeply ingrained in the way they've been taught to think.

That's why it's quite shocking for Lowe to say the time value of money is now negative. He's saying that, for goodness knows how long, a dollar today is worth less than a dollar tomorrow.

Another implication is that there's now no compensation for postponing consumption to tomorrow – which, of course, is what savers are doing.

How do we find ourselves in this remarkable situation? The "proximate" (most obvious) cause is the actions of the big central banks and their "quantitative easing" (creation of money). But, Lowe says, central banks don't act in a vacuum, they respond to the world they find themselves in.

That world is one where more people want to save, but fewer people want to invest in new physical assets. In such a world, the interest rate, which is what "equilibrates" saving and investment, falls.

If this situation is long-lasting, Lowe says, it poses "new questions and challenges". It changes a lot of our unconscious rules about how the world works.

For a start, for people seeking to fund future liabilities – such as employers with defined-benefit pension schemes, or even just people saving to amass an adequate lump sum to retire on – it just got a lot harder. The present value of future liabilities is now higher, meaning you have to put more in to reach your target.

Second, lower rates mean the present (that is, discounted) value of a stream of future income from an asset is now higher. This, in turn, means the asset is worth more and so will now have a higher price.

This is brought about by savers, dissatisfied with the low returns on risk-free assets (government bonds), seeking the higher returns from riskier assets (say, shares of companies with high dividend rates) and thereby pushing up their prices.

Third, if the cost of (financial) capital has fallen but firms don't lower their "hurdle rates" – the expected rate of return required before potential physical investment projects get the go-ahead – then we don't get the growth in business investment spending needed to get the economy moving (and don't have increased demand for the use of savings working to get interest rates back up).

We just have to hope businesses eventually learn how the rules have changed and adjust accordingly.