The Impact of Negative Real Interest Rates

By: Rich Toscano & John Simon | Fri, Aug 15, 2008
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Back in March, we pointed out some important similarities between the current financial environment and that of the 1970s.

Aside from gratuitous decades-old pop culture references, the main focus of the article was on real short-term interest rates, which we approximated by subtracting the year-over-year CPI inflation rate from the Fed funds rate. At the time, real rates by this measure had just turned negative, meaning that the Fed funds rate was actually lower than the rate of CPI inflation. We thought this an important development because the real Fed funds rate provides an indication of the tightness (or lack thereof) of monetary policy.

Checking back in on those real interest rates, we see that they have proceeded further into negative territory and now rest at -3.6%.

Real rates are now even lower than they ever got during the Fed's aggressive reflation campaign earlier this decade. They are, in fact, the lowest they've been since 1980. As measured by the real Fed funds rate, monetary policy is more accomodative than it has been for decades.

It's true that oil prices have pulled back, as we had forecast in our previous article, along with the prices of food and other raw materials. The resource price decline and the continuing economic slowdown could certainly cause CPI growth to drop somewhat from its most recent year-over-year growth rate of 5.6%.

However, assuming that the Fed funds rate remains unchanged, rates are so firmly negative that CPI inflation would have to drop to 2% just for the real Fed funds rate to get back to the zero level. We don't think this is going to happen.

We also feel fairly safe in assuming that the Fed funds rate will not be rising much any time soon. We speculated in our prior article that the impending drop in oil prices would allow the Fed to declare that inflation had been vanquished, thus providing themselves with cover to continue their loose monetary policy. Given that the continuing bloodbath in the housing market is now spilling over in an ever more obvious fashion to the rest of the economy and forcing the Fed to keep rates as low as they can for as long as they can, we believe that the Fed funds rate will not be raised in any significant manner.

In short, we think that real short-term rates will remain in negative territory for some time to come, and that monetary policy will continue to look more like it did in the inflationary 1970s than it did in the disinflationary 1980s and 1990s.

All other things being equal, negative real interest rates tend to exert the following effects:

* - Over longer time periods, that is -- short- to intermediate-term corrections are very much possible even in a long term bull market.
** - Other mechanisms by which real rates affect commodity prices have been explored by Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel.

Does any of this sound familiar? A lot of it sounds like what happened in the 1970s, and even more of it sounds like what's been happening throughout the current decade. We expect the ongoing bout of negative real rates to be both protracted and supportive of these long-term trends.

 

 


 

Rich Toscano

Author: Rich Toscano

Rich Toscano
Pacific Capital Associates

Rich Toscano is a registered representative of and offers securities through Girard Securities, Inc., a registered Broker/Dealer, a Registered Investment Advisor, and member FINRA /SIPC. Rich Toscano also offers investment advisory services through Girard Securities. Pacific Capital Associates is not a subsidiary or affiliate of Girard Securities. Insurance services are offered through John Simon, California Insurance License #0C78205. Real estate services are offered through John Simon, California Real Estate Broker #01385226.

Copyright © 2008-2010 Rich Toscano

John Simon

Author: John Simon

John Simon
Pacific Capital Associates

John Simon is a registered representative of and offers securities through Girard Securities, Inc., a registered Broker/Dealer, a Registered Investment Advisor, and member FINRA /SIPC. John Simon also offers investment advisory services through Girard Securities. Pacific Capital Associates is not a subsidiary or affiliate of Girard Securities. Insurance services are offered through John Simon, California Insurance License #0C78205. Real estate services are offered through John Simon, California Real Estate Broker #01385226.

Copyright © 2008-2010 John Simon

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