On interest rates

In his 2015 Ayn Rand Lecture, US investment banker Ken Moelis explained why low interest rates might be the new norm – and a perfectly rational one, rather than just a desperate attempt by central banks to keep things afloat. The reason he gave is that, thanks to capitalism, things are getting better and cheaper. If you don’t spend your money today, and put it under the mattress, it will buy even more in a year or so. And if you lend your money to someone and they repay you interest-free in a year’s time, your principal will buy you more than it could a year ago. In certain sectors – consumer electronics, for example – it buy you a lot more, so fast are prices falling. Thus a nominal interest rate of zero is actually a real, positive interest rate. Investors are willing to accept lower rates because falling prices boost their real returns.

This made me think more about falling prices – not prices that are falling because of inept, over-restrictive monetary policy, but prices that are falling because we are getting better and better at producing stuff. Specifically, I reckon that we are getting better and better at producing stuff at an accelerating rate.

Why? Well, we have been building up capital for a long time, so it is not surprising that production is getting more efficient. But something else has magnified that productivity. In the last 25 years, countries such as India, China and those in Eastern Europe have become part of the global economic system. And I think the economic network is a bit like a phone network – the more connections you add, the (exponentially) more useful it becomes. Add a fair chunk of the world population onto the capitalist network, and its performance rockets spectacularly too. New ideas, new resources, new competition – it sharply and disproportionately boosts the efficiency of the economic network, drives costs and prices down and quality up. And each improvement breeds others. So things get cheaper and cheaper, faster and faster.

Globalisation, in other words, is making our money go further at an increasing rate. We no longer need large nominal returns in order to do well by lending it out. Which is why nominal interest rates in the future are likely to be much lower than they have been in the past.