Interest rates in advanced economies continue to persist at historically low levels. This trend is due not only to the response of central banks to slow growth, but also fundamental factors. If these interest rates continue close to their current levels, what are the consequences for international capital flows?
The decline in rates in the advanced economies has been widely documented and studied. Lukasz Rachel and Thomas D. Smith of the Bank of England have investigated the determinants of the fall in global real interest rates. They attribute the decline in part to increased savings due to demographic forces, higher inequality and a glut of precautionary savings in emerging markets. Investment spending, which has fallen due to the falling price of capital and lower public investment, also contributes to low interest rates. Most of these factors, they claim, will continue to prevail.
Lukasz Rachel and Larry Summers of Harvard have also looked at falling real rates in the advanced economies, which they attribute to secular stagnation. They point out that since the current rates reflect higher levels of government debt, the interest rate that we would observe if there was only a private sector would be even lower. They urge policymakers to tolerate fiscal deficits and also to engage in policies to increase private investment.
The low rates have been an incentive to potential borrowers, and consequently debt levels have risen. The IMF has updated its Global Debt Database, which includes private and public debt for 190 countries dating back to the 1950s. The data show that the three currently most indebted countries are China, Japan and the U.S., accounting for more than half of global debt. The increase in the debt of China and other emerging markets is due to increases in private debt. Corporate borrowing in these countries has soared, and much of it is denominated in dollars. Public debt has risen in the advanced economies, and more recently in the emerging market and low-income countries as well.
Last spring IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned of unsustainable debt burdens in some of the low income countries. In recent years, the borrowers have included governments with relatively low risk ratings that may fall lower. In some cases, the increased debt reflects loans from China that are part of that country’s Belt and Road Initiative. IMF officials are concerned that some of these countries will turn to the IMF for assistance of they cannot meet their debt obligations.
The Federal Reserve has indicated that it will not raise its policy rates in the near future. Consequently, the incentive to search for yield will continue to contribute to the pro-cyclical nature of capital flows in the emerging markets. But the current situation is sustainable for only as long as the existing environment continues.
Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has warned that it is only a matter of time until the next financial crisis erupts. He cites four factors that contribute to the outbreak of such crises. First, over time risk moves out of the most regulated parts of the economy to the least regulated. This makes it more difficult for regulators to assess the fragility of the financial sector. Second, an ideological belief that unregulated markets work best contributes to the proliferation of risky lending. Third, the financial sector is a major contributor to election campaigns. This gives them access to lawmakers who are drafting the laws that govern the operations of the financial sector. Finally, there is the human tendency to forget or ignore past events. This allows the financial sector to engage in risky but profitable activities that enrich those conducting them while the public enjoys access to relatively cheap credit.
Continuing low interest rates, therefore, may alleviate some of the pressure on those borrowers with high debt loads. But they are susceptible to other shocks such as slowing economic growth or the breakdown of trade negotiations between the U.S. and China. If such a shock occurs, we may once again witness a flight to safety that leaves borrowers in emerging markets vulnerable to “sudden stops” of capital that, combined with depreciating exchange rates, will disrupt their economies.