How Low Interest Rates Have Hurt Economic Recovery

satyajit das
In the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in September 2008, after the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust, central banks all across the Western world drove interest rates close to 0%.

This was referred to as the zero interest rate policy or ZIRP. The hope was that with ZIRP the interest rates on loans offered by banks would remain very low and in that environment people would borrow and spend more.

They would buy more cars…More homes…More TVs..

And this would ensure an economic recovery. QED.

But things did not turn out to be as simple as that. As Satyajit Das writes in his new book The Age of Stagnation—Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril: “Low rates also discourage savings. But sometimes, in a complex cycle of cause and effect, they may perversely reduce consumption as lower returns force people to save more for future needs.”

And in fact low interest rates may also lead to lower consumption. How is that possible? As Das writes: “Citigroup equity strategist Robert Buckland has argued that low rates and QE reduce employment and economic activity, rather than increasing them. These policies encourage a shift from bonds into equities.”

Interestingly, those who have retired from work have had to shift their money into stocks because of low interest rates. As Das writes: “In October 2014 an American retiree with US$1 million invested in secure, two-year US government bonds would have earned US$3900 in annual interest, 92 percent less than the US$48,000 they would have received in 2007. The retired and savers in advanced economies were forced to purchase riskier securities or invest in dividend-paying stocks to earn a return.”

And these investors were looking for income from the investments they had made in stocks. As Das writes: “As investors are looking for income rather than capital growth, they force companies to increase dividends and undertake share buybacks. To meet these pressures, companies must boost cash flow and earnings, by shedding workers and reducing investments to cut costs. The process increases share prices and returns for shareholders of the company, but is bad for the overall economy.”

What does this mean? With interest rates on bank deposits and other fixed income investments at very low levels, people have moved their money to equity. These investors force companies to increase dividends and at the same time buyback its own shares. When a company buys back its own shares a lesser number of shares remain in the open market, pushing up the earnings per share. With fewer shares going around, it also increases the chances of a higher dividend per share.

Interestingly, with interest rates at such low levels, companies have been borrowing money to buy back their own shares. As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale wrote in a research note in November: “The primary driver for the rapid rise in bank lending…has been borrowing by US corporates and we all know they have been using the Fed’s free money not to invest in capacity expanding expenditures, but rather to buy back mountains of their own shares…Corporate debt borrowing at an $674bn annual rate [is] closing in rapidly on the all-time borrowing splurge of 2007!

Also, in the pressure to boost earnings companies have had to fire people and at the same time reduce investments to cut costs. This has led to hire share prices but it has also led to a situation where employees have been fired from their existing jobs and new jobs haven’t been created. Any person who has been fired or is likely to be fired is unlikely to go out shopping, as the basic idea behind lower interest rates is.

This has an impact on consumption and economic growth. Hence, in a very perverse sort of way, low interest rates may have had a negative impact on consumption. And this has meant economic growth has not recovered as fast as it was expected to.

Also, the ZIRP has pushed up stock markets all over the developed world and in the process helped the rich become richer. As L Randall Wray writes in Why Minsky Matters—An introduction to the Work of a Maverick Economist: “According to a study by Pavlina Tcherneva, 95 percent of the benefits of the recovery from the global financial crisis have gone to the top 1 percent of the income distribution. Another study finds that the top one-thousandth (top 0.1 percent) of the U.S. population now owns fifth of all the wealth.”

The trouble is that the rich do not increase their consumption if they get richer. As Das writes: “Higher income households have a lower marginal propensity to consume, spending a lower portion of each incremental dollar of income than those with lower incomes. US households earning US $35,000 consume an amount from each additional dollar of income that is around three times that of a household with an income of US$200,000. Given that consumption constitutes around 60-70 percent of economic activity, concentration of income at the higher end limits growth in demand.”

And this explains why low interest rates through large parts of the Western world haven’t had the kind of impact that they were expected to. What this tells us is that there are no universal solutions to problems even though economists and politicians often sound very confident while offering them.

And this is something dear readers that you need to keep in mind the next time you hear a politician or an economist, talk about the economy, with great confidence. Economics is not an exact science.

Disclosure: Satyajit Das wrote the foreword to my book Easy Money: Evolution of Money from Robinson Crusoe to the First World War

The column appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on January 18, 2016

Go West at your own peril

go west(Go West) Life is peaceful there
(Go West) In the open air
(Go West) Where the skies are blue
(Go West) This is what we’re gonna do
– Pet Shop Boys, a British pop group

I heard this song sometime in the early 1990s when MTV first came to India. A few years later when words like career, job and degree first intruded into my rather peaceful middle-class existence, the lines of the Go West started to make even more sense to me.

Back then, in the small town that I come from, a person was deemed to be successful, if he completed his engineering degree, perhaps did an MBA to follow it up, got married and then went to work in the United States of America. If not the United States, the United Kingdom was just about fine.

Parents beamed in pride if their sons (yes, primarily sons) went to work in the West. But all that was nearly two decades back. Ironically, I still see the same story playing out with many parents and their sons (yes, still sons). There is still great pressure from parents to Go West. Parents still take great pleasure in telling others if their sons are going abroad to work, even for a few days.

But this fascination to Go West may no longer be a formula for success. Between the early 1980s and 2008, the Western countries, in particular the United States, did reasonably well on the economic front.

All this changed in mid-September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust, and the current financial crisis started. Since then, the Western countries have taken various measures to tackle the low economic growth, but they have been unsuccessful at it.

As Satyajit Das writes in his new book The Age of Stagnation—Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril: “The assumption was that government spending, lower interest rates, and the supply of liquidity (or cash) to money markets would create growth…But activity did not respond to these traditional measures.”

In fact, conditions in the economy haven’t returned to the way they were before the crisis started. As Das writes: “Conditions in the real economy have not returned to normal. Must- have latest electronic gadgets cannot obscure the fact that living standards for most people are stagnant. Job insecurity has risen. Wages are static, when they are not falling. Accepted perquisites of life in developed countries, such as education, houses, health services, aged care, savings and retirement, are increasingly unattainable. Future generations may have fewer opportunities and lower living standards than their parents.”

The basic problem is that the Western countries are not making ‘enough’ things. As Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales write in Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: “For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced econo­mies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things.”

Further, as Thomas Piketty points out in Capital in the Twenty First Century, between 1900 and 1980, 70–80 percent of the glo­bal production of goods happened in the United States and Europe. By 2010, this share had declined to around 50 percent, around the same level it was at in 1860. This has led to loss of jobs and a slow economic growth through much of the Western world.

The politicians tried to correct for this by encouraging easy credit. As Rajan and Zingales write: “They needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition… So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrow­ing, proved unsustainable.”

This formula is being repeated by the Western countries, in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, this time around easy credit hasn’t led to economic growth and like it had in the past, this will also end badly.

Hence, Go West at your own peril.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on December 23, 2015

What the media did not tell you about the economy this month

newspaperAn old adage in journalism goes: “if it bleeds, it leads”. But this doesn’t seem to apply to bad economic news. Allow me to elaborate. Let’s start with new car sales. New car sales are a reliable economic indicator which tell you whether the economy is starting to pick up.

People buy a car only when they feel certain about their job prospects. Further, once car sales pick up, sale of steel, tyres, auto-components, glass etc., also starts to pick up. New car sales have a multiplier effect and hence, are a good indicator of economic growth. At least that’s how one would look at things theoretically.

The jump in the new car sales numbers was on the front page of the Mumbai edition of the leading pink paper where it was reported that sales saw a double digit growth in November 2015. Car sales in November 2015 went by 11.4% to 2,36,664 units, in comparison to November 2014. That is indeed a good jump and does indicate at some level that the consumer sentiment is improving.

But we need to take into account the fact that Diwali this time was in November and that always pushes up car sales. The December 2015 new car sales number will be a proper indicator of whether car sales have actually recovered or not.

Now contrast this with merchandise exports (goods exports) which fell by 24.4% to $20 billion in November 2015, in comparison to the same period last year.

Over and above this, the exports have been falling for the last twelve months. This piece of news was buried in the inside pages of the Mumbai edition of the leading pink paper. Exports are a very important economic indicator. Countries which have driven their masses out of poverty have done so by having a vibrant export sector.

Getting back to car sales. It is important to ask how important car sales are in the Indian context.  As per the 2011 Census, 4.7% of the households owned cars in India. At the same time 21% of households owned two-wheelers (scooters, motorcycles and mopeds (yes, they still get made and sold).

This tells us very clearly that two-wheeler sales are a better economic indicator in the Indian context than car sales. Many more people own two-wheelers than cars. Further, many more people are likely to buy two wheelers than cars given the fact that two-wheelers are more affordable.

And how are two-wheeler sales doing? Not too well. Two wheeler sales in the month of November 2015 went up just 1.47% to 13,20,561 units, in comparison to November 2014. The motorcycle sales went up by 1.57% to 8,66,705 units. Scooter sales went up by 2.45% to 3,96,024 units. And moped sales fell by 6.16% to 57,832 units.

In fact, the increase in two-wheeler sales in November 2015 in comparison to November 2014 stood at just 19,130 units. Whereas the increase in car sales was at 24,226 units. The increase in car sales was greater than two wheeler sales. And this is indeed very surprising, given that total two wheeler sales in November 2015, were 5.6 times the car sales.

You won’t find this very important point having been made in the pink papers. What does this tell us? It tells us that a large part of India is still not comfortable making what is for them an expensive purchase. It also tells us that the consumer demand at the level of the upper middle class (for the lack of a better term), which can afford to buy a car, is much better than it is for others.

The question is why is did the business media miss out on this? A possible explanation is that most of the business media these days is run out of Delhi. And in Delhi everyone owns a car, at least that’s the impression you are likely to get if you work in the media in Delhi. So car sales are important, two wheeler sales are not. But that is really not the case even in Delhi.

As TN Ninan writes in The Turn of the Tortoise—The Challenge and Promise of India’s Future: “In Delhi, according to data collected for the 2011 Census, 20.7 per cent owned cars and 38.9 per cent owned two-wheelers…In a conscious middle-class entity like Gurgaon, neighbouring Delhi…the credit rating agency CRISIL assessed that 30 per cent of households owned cars [and] 38.9 per cent owned two-wheelers.”

Long story short—two wheeler sales are a better economic indicator than car sales. What this also tells us is that any piece of positive news will be played up and highlighted on the front page whereas any piece of negative news will be buried in the inside pages. Why does this happen? Why did the media almost bury the news of very low growth in two-wheeler sales?

Satyajit Das has an explanation for this in his terrific new book The Age of Stagnation—Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril: “Bad news is bad for business. The media and commentariat, for the most part, accentuate the positive. Facts, they argue, are too depressing. The priority is to maintain the appearance of normality, to engender confidence.”

Also, given that a business newspaper (or for that matter any newspaper) makes money from advertisements and not the price the buyers pay to buy a newspaper, this isn’t surprising.

Of course, you dear reader, need not worry, as long as you keep reading The Daily Reckoning.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on December 17, 2015