Swedroe: Longer Lives Lower Interest Rates

November 30, 2015

Ever since the global financial crisis, the real interest rates of developed economies have remained in negative territory. Nominal interest rates hover near zero, and inflation rates, although quite low for historical standards, have remained positive (in most countries, at least on average). What’s more, negative nominal interest rates have even been observed in some developed countries for the first time.

The typical explanation for these low real rates is the extremely loose monetary policies (qualitatively, through lowering interest rates, and quantitatively, through bond-buying programs) put into place in response to the crisis. In the past several years, many of Wall Street’s gurus have persistently warned that the low-rate environment will soon be over and central banks will begin the tightening cycle.

A Study Of Demographics And Interest Rates

Carlos Carvalho, Andrea Ferrero and Fernanda Nechio—authors of the September 2015 paper, “Demographics and Real Interest Rates: Inspecting the Mechanism”—have a different perspective.

The authors begin by noting that real interest rates have been trending down for more than two decades across many countries, suggesting that there are forces other than accommodative monetary policies at play. Their hypothesis is that demographic trends offer at least a partial explanation for low and declining real interest rates.

They note the world is undergoing a dramatic demographic transition, and write: “In most advanced economies people tend to live longer. In Japan, the U.S. and Western Europe, life expectancy at birth has increased by about 10 years between 1960 and 2010, and new generations have continued to expect longevity to increase. At the same time, immigration notwithstanding, population growth rates are decreasing at a fast pace, and in some cases (e.g. Japan) becoming negative. The combination of the population growth slowdown and the increase in longevity implies a notable increase in the dependency ratio—i.e., the ratio between people 65 years and older and people 15 to 64 years old.”

According to the authors, consequences of this demographic transition are far-reaching and result in important macroeconomic, public finance and political economic repercussions. They develop a life-cycle model that captures important features of this demographic transition in developed economies, and then predict the real interest rate. Following is a summary of their findings:

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