REAL interest rates in the developed world have been low ever since the financial crisis of 2008-09 (see chart). The global economy might have struggled to recover had that not been the case; higher rates would have caused many more companies and homeowners to default.
Central banks are now starting to push rates slightly higher. And according to a new paper* from Bain, a management consultancy, the trend towards robotics will push them higher still—at least for a decade. That could be a shock for the financial markets.
Bain estimates that by 2030 American companies will have invested as much as $8trn in automation. As companies scramble to borrow money in order to buy machinery and robots, the resulting investment boom will drive up rates.
Automation will boost productivity, which has grown sluggishly in recent years. This slowdown may have been caused by the shift from manufacturing to services, where productivity gains are harder to achieve. Between 1993 and 2014, the American car industry more than doubled its productivity, but lost 28% of its workforce. By contrast, over the same period hospitals added 28% more jobs and increased productivity by just 16%.
But automation is about to come to a wide range of service industries. Though that will be a boon for productivity, Bain estimates that 20-25% of current jobs could be eliminated by 2030. This shift will be much faster than previous labour-market transformations, such as that from agriculture to industry at the start of the 20th century. Lower-skilled workers, such as waiters, will take the biggest hit.
The result would be an even more unequal economy, because a greater share of income would go to highly paid workers. They are more likely to save and invest than lower-paid workers, who spend virtually all their income. So after the initial interest-rate surge, the increase in saving and the hit to demand could cause interest rates to plunge again, falling back to zero in real terms.
In a paper** written last year for the Bank for International Settlements, a central-bankers’ club, Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan came up with similar predictions for interest rates using a different chain of reasoning. They thought demography would be the main reason interest rates would rise. Real rates adjust to balance the desired levels of savings and investment. The current low level of real rates indicates that the former has exceeded the latter as the baby boomers have made provision for their old age. But global population growth is slowing and the size of working-age cohorts in the advanced economies and China will decline.
As workers retire, they will run down their savings pots. Companies will substitute capital for labour as the workforce shrinks. A smaller pool of workers will earn higher wages, pushing up the labour share of GDP and (in a divergence from the Bain line of reasoning) thereby reducing inequality, but also driving up inflation. Keeping it under control will require higher nominal interest rates. Furthermore, desired savings will fall faster than desired investment, and real rates will rise.
What about the argument that “secular stagnation” will keep interest rates low? Andrew Smithers, an independent economist based in London, says that because there is no reason to expect world growth to be slower than average over the next decade, global interest rates could well rise to more normal levels. However, he adds, growth may be less important for rates than is the balance between fiscal and monetary policy. With fiscal policy easing in both America and Europe, monetary policy will need to be tightened, he reckons.
That would make the road to higher rates a bumpy one. The piles of debt accumulated before the financial crisis have been redistributed rather than eliminated. A sudden rise in rates might hurt economic activity, and thus be self-limiting, if central banks have to reverse policy. Financial markets have translated low rates into high valuations. Equities are priced as the discounted value of future profits; the lower the discount rate, the higher the price. But in the Goodhart/Pradhan scenario, shares might face a double whammy. As employers compete for scarce workers, the discount rate would rise and profits would be squeezed. Homeowners, and companies with lots of debt on their balance-sheets, would get a nasty shock. As rates rise, stress levels will, too.
Japan still has great influence on global financial markets
IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.
“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds.
This week the board of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to leave its monetary policy broadly unchanged. But leading up to its policy meeting, rumours that it might make a substantial change caused a few jitters in global bond markets. The anxiety was justified. A sudden change of tack by the BoJ would be felt far beyond Japan’s shores.
One reason is that Japan’s influence on global asset markets has kept growing as decades of the country’s surplus savings have piled up. Japan’s net foreign assets—what its residents own abroad minus what they owe to foreigners—have risen to around $3trn, or 60% of the country’s annual GDP (see top chart).
But it is also a consequence of very loose monetary policy. The BoJ has deployed an arsenal of special measures to battle Japan’s persistently low inflation. Its benchmark interest rate is negative (-0.1%). It is committed to purchasing ¥80trn ($715bn) of government bonds each year with the aim of keeping Japan’s ten-year bond yield around zero. And it is buying baskets of Japan’s leading stocks to the tune of ¥6trn a year.
Tokyo storm warning
These measures, once unorthodox but now familiar, have pushed Japan’s banks, insurance firms and ordinary savers into buying foreign stocks and bonds that offer better returns than they can get at home. Indeed, Japanese investors have loaded up on short-term foreign debt to enable them to buy even more. Holdings of foreign assets in Japan rose from 111% of GDP in 2010 to 185% in 2017 (see bottom chart). The impact of capital outflows is evident in currency markets. The yen is cheap. On The Economist’s Big Mac index, a gauge based on burger prices, it is the most undervalued of any major currency.
Investors from Japan have also kept a lid on bond yields in the rich world. They own almost a tenth of the sovereign bonds issued by France, for instance, and more than 15% of those issued by Australia and Sweden, according to analysts at J.P. Morgan. Japanese insurance companies own lots of corporate bonds in America, although this year the rising cost of hedging dollars has caused a switch into European corporate bonds. The value of Japan’s holdings of foreign equities has tripled since 2012. They now make up almost a fifth of its overseas assets.
What happens in Japan thus matters a great deal to an array of global asset prices. A meaningful shift in monetary policy would probably have a dramatic effect. It is not natural for Japan to be the cheapest place to buy a Big Mac, a latté or an iPad, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale. The yen would surge. A retreat from special measures by the BoJ would be a signal that the era of quantitative easing was truly ending. Broader market turbulence would be likely. Yet a corollary is that as long as the BoJ maintains its current policies—and it seems minded to do so for a while—it will continue to be a prop to global asset prices.
Rabbit’s sales patter seemed to have a similar foundation. Anyone sceptical of his mileage figures would be referred to the April issue of Consumer Reports. Yet one part of his spiel proved suspect. The dollar, which he thought was decaying in 1979, was actually about to revive. This recovery owed a lot to a big increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It was also, in part, made in Japan. In 1980 Japan liberalised its capital account. Its investors began selling yen to buy dollars. The shopping spree for foreign assets that started then has yet to cease.
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