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Interest Rates, Funny Money, and Economic Malaise

Interest Rates, Funny Money, and Economic Malaise

Since the 2007–8 financial crisis, more and more economists have entertained the idea that there might be some connection between artificially low interest rates and business cycles. By “artificially low” I mean interest rates that are pushed below their natural levels by expansionary monetary policy. The relationship between monetary policy and interest rates is tricky; beyond the immediate short run, it is hard to say whether liquidity effects (which tend to push down rates) or rising income effects (which tend to push up rates) dominate. But in the short run, to the extent that expansionary monetary policy is a surprise, there should be a fall in market interest rates that is not justified by economic fundamentals — namely, real saved resources available for investment projects.

The way the business cycle unfolds looks like this: The monetary authority injects new money into capital markets in an attempt to give the economy a shot in the arm. Investors see artificially low rates and increase their investments in projects that will pay out in the future. But households are not saving any more real resources. In fact, households will probably respond to low interest rates in the same way: the costs of reallocating purchasing power from future you to present you have fallen, so you are more likely to borrow to equalize your intertemporal marginal utility of consumption. With both consumers and investors using up more real resources in ways that are fundamentally at odds with each other’s plans, something’s got to give. The comovement of consumption and investment beyond the economy’s production possibility frontier is ultimately unsustainable. When everyone wakes up to the fact that the low interest rates were the result of funny money, rather than real economic forces, the bubble bursts.

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