Have we been lulled into a false sense of security about the future path of rates by ZIRP/NIRP policies? Central banks’ misguided efforts to engineer inflation have undoubtedly been woefully feeble, so far. As the Federal Reserve “valiantly” raises short rates, markets ignore its dot plot and yield curves continue to flatten. And thanks to Larry Summers, the term “secular stagnation” has entered the lexicon. While it sure doesn't feel like it, could rates suddenly take off to the upside?
A guest post on the Bank of England’s staff blog, “Bank Underground”, answers the question with an unequivocal yes. Harvard University’s visiting scholar at the Bank, Paul Schmelzing, normally focuses on 20th century financial history. In his guest post (see here), he analyses real interest rates stretching back a further 600 years to 1311. Schmelzing describes his methodology as follows.
We trace the use of the dominant risk-free asset over time, starting with sovereign rates in the Italian city states in the 14th and 15th centuries, later switching to long-term rates in Spain, followed by the Province of Holland, since 1703 the UK, subsequently Germany, and finally the US.
Schmelzing calculates the 700-year average real rate at 4.78% and the average for the last two hundred years at 2.6%. As he notes “the current environment remains severely depressed”, no kidding. Looking back over seven centuries certainly provides plenty of context for our current situation, where rates have been trending downwards since the early 1980s. According to Schmelzing, we are in the ninth “real rate depression” since 1311 as shown in his chart below. We count more than nine, but let’s not be picky.
Furthermore, he believes that we are still locked into a 500-year downward trend.
Upon closer inspection, it can be shown that trend real rates have been following a downward path for close to five hundred years, on a variety of measures. The development since the 1980s does not constitute a fundamental break with these tendencies.
Now to the useful bit, Schmelzing looks at how these "real rates depressions" ended. The chart below shows the path of real interest rates in each reversal period following the trough.
Most reversals to “real rate stagnation” periods have been rapid, non-linear, and took place on average after 26 years. Within 24-months after hitting their troughs in the rate depression cycle, rates gained on average 315 basis points, with two reversals showing real rate appreciations of more than 600 basis points within 2 years.
While we’d rather he ignored tainted “maestro”, Schmelzing states that there is “solid historical evidence” to support Greenspan’s view that real rates will rise “reasonably fast” once they turn. In Schmelzing’s opinion, and we would broadly agree, the best analogy in “recent” times for today’s situation is the Long Depression that followed the Panic of 1873.
Most of the eight previous cyclical “real rate depressions” were eventually disrupted by geopolitical events or catastrophes, with several – such as the Black Death, the Thirty Years War, or World War Two – combining both demographic, and geopolitical inflections. Most cyclical real rate depressions equally coincided with inflation outperformances. But for a minority of cycles, economic fundamentals were decisive, and exhibited both excess savings and subdued inflation. The prime example – and likely the closest historical analogy to today’s “secular stagnation” – is represented by the global “Long Depression” of the 1880s and 1890s. Following years of a global railroad investment frenzy, and global overcapacity indicators inflecting in the mid-1860s, the infamous “Panic of 1873” heralded the advent of two decades of low productivity growth, deflationary price dynamics, and a rise in global populism and protectionism.
Low rates in the wake of a financial crisis, lack of productivity growth, rising populism, etc, all strike a chord with our current circumstances, obviously. Going into more detail about the exit from the real rates depression of the 1880s-1890s, Schmelzing emphasises a rebound in productivity, stronger wage inflation and monetary expansion.
What ended the Long Depression? Labor productivity bottomed out in 1892-3, prior to the discovery of gold at the Klondike, and the associated monetary expansion. Wage inflation started outstripping productivity increases as early as 1885, leading the recovery in general inflation. And US equities finally bounced back from their 15-year lows with the Presidential election of William McKinley – a Republican pro-business protectionist – in November 1896. In other words, there is strong evidence suggesting that the last “secular stagnation cycle” started fading relatively autonomously after just over two decades following the key financial shock, not requiring the aid of decisive fiscal or monetary stimulus.
We find his conclusion, that a rapid, non-linear recovery in real rates can occur without any “decisive” events or policy, almost counter-intuitive. It doesn't feel like it's about to happen, but maybe it didn't in the 1890s either. Indeed, maybe the best analogy for rates today is the proverbial beach ball held under water.