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Visualizing the 200-Year History of U.S. Interest Rates

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History of U.S. Interest Rates

us interest rates

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

Visualizing the 200 Year History of U.S. Interest Rates

U.S. interest rates will stay near zero for at least three years as the Federal Reserve enacts measures to prop up the economy.

But are low interest rates a new phenomenon? Interestingly, one study by the Bank of England shows that this pattern of declining interest rates has taken place globally since the late Middle Ages. In fact, it suggests that these downward-sloping rate trends have taken place even before modern central banks entered the scene—illustrating an entrenched, historical trend.

This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments tracks the history of U.S. interest rates over two centuries, from the creation of the first U.S. Bank to the current historic lows.

U.S. Interest Rates: Historic Highs and Lows

What are the highest and lowest rates throughout history?

Prior to today’s historically low levels, interest rates fell to 1.7% during World War II as the U.S. government injected billions into the economy to help finance the war. Around the same time, government debt ballooned to over 100% of GDP.

Fast-forward to 1981, when interest rates hit all-time highs of 15.8%. Rampant inflation was the key economic issue in the 1970s and early 1980s, and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker instigated rate controls to restrain demand. It was a period of low economic growth and rising unemployment, with jobless figures as high as 8%.

YearAverage Interest Rate*Year OpenYear CloseAnnual % Change
20200.9%1.9%0.7%**-65.1%
20192.1%2.7%1.9%-28.6%
20182.9%2.5%2.7%11.8%
20172.3%2.4%2.4%-1.6%
20161.8%2.2%2.4%7.7%
20152.1%2.1%2.3%4.6%
20142.5%3.0%2.2%-28.6%
20132.4%1.9%3.0%70.8%
20121.8%2.0%1.8%-5.8%
20112.8%3.4%1.9%-42.7%
20103.2%3.9%3.3%-14.3%
20093.3%2.5%3.9%71.1%
20083.7%3.9%2.3%-44.3%
20074.6%4.7%4.0%-14.2%
20064.8%4.4%4.7%7.3%
20054.3%4.2%4.4%3.5%
20044.3%4.4%4.2%-0.7%
20034.0%4.1%4.3%11.5%
20024.6%5.2%3.8%-24.5%
20015.0%4.9%5.1%-1.0%
20006.0%6.6%5.1%-20.6%
19995.7%4.7%6.5%38.7%
19985.3%5.7%4.7%-19.1%
19976.4%6.5%5.8%-10.6%
19966.4%5.6%6.4%15.2%
19956.6%7.9%5.6%-28.8%
19947.1%5.9%7.8%34.5%
19935.9%6.6%5.8%-13.0%
19927.0%6.8%6.7%-0.2%
19917.9%8.0%6.7%-17.0%
19908.6%7.9%8.1%1.9%
19898.5%9.2%7.9%-13.2%
19888.9%8.8%9.1%3.5%
19878.4%7.2%8.8%22.1%
19867.7%9.0%7.2%-19.7%
198510.6%11.7%9.0%-22.1%
198412.5%11.9%11.6%-2.3%
198311.1%10.3%11.8%14.1%
198213.0%14.2%10.4%-25.9%
198113.9%12.4%14.0%12.5%
198011.4%10.5%12.4%20.3%
19799.4%9.2%10.3%12.9%
19788.4%7.8%9.2%17.6%
19777.4%6.8%7.8%14.2%
19767.6%7.8%6.8%-12.2%
19758.0%7.4%7.8%4.9%
19747.6%6.9%7.4%7.3%
19736.9%6.4%6.9%7.6%
19726.2%5.9%6.4%8.8%
19716.2%6.5%5.9%-9.4%
19707.4%7.9%6.5%-17.5%
19696.7%6.0%7.9%27.9%
19685.6%5.6%6.2%8.1%
19675.1%4.7%5.7%22.8%
19664.9%4.6%4.6%-0.2%
19654.3%4.2%4.7%10.5%
19644.2%4.1%4.2%1.7%
19634.0%3.8%4.1%7.5%

*Indicated by 10-Year Treasury Yields, a prime mover of interest rates
**As of September 28, 2020
Source: Macrotrends

Over the last year, interest rates have dropped from 2.1% to 0.9%, a 65% decrease. Rates are now below 1945 levels—and well under 6.1%, the average U.S. interest rate over the last 58 years.

Longer Horizons

Interest rates in the 18th and 19th centuries also provide illuminating trends.

After falling for three decades at the turn of the century, interest rates stood at 4% in 1835. That year, president Andrew Jackson paid off the U.S. national debt for the first and only time in history, as debt was seen as a “moral failing” or “black magic” in his eyes.

One consequence of this was the government sold swaths of land to finance the federal budget, ultimately avoiding the accumulation of debt. It didn’t last for long. The influx of land sales led to a real estate bubble and eventually, the economy fell into a recession. The government had to borrow again and rates ticked higher over the next several years.

Similarly, after the Civil War ended in 1865, data shows that interest rates also witnessed a long-term, negative slope, which ended in 1945. It then took 100 years for interest rates to exceed the highs of the Civil War era.

Why So Low For So Long?

While the exact reasons are unclear, broad structural forces may be influencing interest rates.

One explanation suggests that higher capital accumulation could be a factor. Another suggests that modern welfare states, with their increased public spending, have as well. For instance, average expenditures of total GDP in the UK averaged 35% between 1981 and 1960, compared to 8% between 1700 and 1750.

Along with this, rates usually have cycles that last between 22 and 27 years. When cycles shift from rising to falling rates, a quick reversal typically takes place. This was seen in 1982, when interest rates dropped 25%—from 14.2% to 10.4%—in one year. However, a different trend can be seen when falling rates switch to rising trends. These reversals typically average 2-14 years.

As near-zero rates seem more likely for the extended future, market distortions—such as ultra-low income yields—may become more commonplace. In turn, investors may want to rethink traditional asset allocations between fixed income, equities, and alternatives.

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Markets in a Minute

Infrastructure Megatrends: The Clean Energy Transition

Governments are keen to make the transition to clean energy, but what will it take to get there? In this chart, we examine two scenarios through 2050.

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Infrastructure Megatrends: The Clean Energy Transition

Demand for clean energy is ramping up as a majority of countries target 2050 as the year to achieve net-zero emissions. But how much will this all cost?

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), upwards of $100 trillion is needed to build a system capable of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2C° (3.6F°).

In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we take a closer look at the outcomes of such a massive endeavor.

Investment Required to Reshape Global Energy Markets

The IRENA believes there are two scenarios for how the clean energy transition plays out by 2050.

Their first scenario involves a total investment of $95 trillion (112% of global GDP in 2020) and is based on current policies and targets. Despite the lofty amount, this scenario is expected to fall short in achieving the goals set by the Paris Agreement.

Their second scenario involves a more ambitious set of targets, as well as a 16% larger investment of $110 trillion. Thanks to economies of scale, this scenario will reduce carbon emissions much further and keep the global temperature rise below 2C° (3.6F°).

The estimates behind these two scenarios are outlined in the table below.

 Current SituationScenario 1 ($95T in investment)Scenario 2 ($110T in investment)
Renewable Share in Electricity Generation26%55%86%
Electrification Share of Final Energy20%30%49%
Energy-Related CO2 Emissions (gigatonnes)34gt 33gt
9.5gt

How Do We Get There?

For scenario 2 to become reality, significant changes would need to be made across the entire economy.

For starters, the IRENA estimates that 1.1 billion electric vehicles will be on the road by 2050, up from 8 million in 2019. The resulting need for charging infrastructure is reflected by Scenario 2’s higher share of electrification (49% vs 30%).

Government subsidies around the world would also need to be adjusted, with much less money flowing to fossil fuels. The chart below provides a roadmap for these adjustments—on the left is the dollar value of subsidies, and on the right is each segment’s share of the total.

Government energy subsidies

Fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. are facilitated through tax cuts, and are estimated to be worth around $20 billion per year. This may change very soon, as the Biden administration has signaled its intention to eliminate these subsidies as part of its 2021 tax plan.

With Great Change Comes Great Opportunity

The demand for clean energy is expected to kick-off a monumental transformation of the world’s infrastructure.

For investors, gaining exposure to this megatrend may combine attractive return potential with positive environmental impact. In fact, many listed companies in the utilities sector are establishing themselves as leaders in this regard.

Consider Enel, an Italian multinational with activities in Europe and the U.S. The firm has directed capital towards renewable energy since 2015 and is now the world’s largest player in renewables with 46GW of installed capacity across solar, wind, and hydro.

Further developments are planned, and Enel expects to grow its earnings (represented by EBITDA) at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5%-6% over the next decade.

To learn more about the opportunities surrounding clean energy, consider this infographic on the global sustainable recovery.

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Can Foreign Currencies Act as an Inflation Hedge?

To determine if foreign currencies were a good inflation hedge, we looked at their performance relative to U.S. inflation over the last four decades.

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Inflation Hedge

This infographic is available as a poster.

Can Foreign Currencies Act as an Inflation Hedge?

Inflation is like corrosion. Initially, it can make investment returns less attractive. Over time, it can significantly eat away at an investment’s value. For U.S. investors looking for an inflation hedge, holding foreign currencies may be one option.

But just how effective are they at managing inflation risk? In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we look at how the performance of foreign currencies compared to U.S. inflation rates over the last four decades.

How to Hedge Against Inflation

Inflation reduces the value of a dollar over time. To manage this risk, investors look for returns that are higher than the inflation rate. For example, a currency that appreciates 6% during 2% inflation may be considered a relatively good inflation hedge.

What makes a currency appreciate? A currency will perform well against the U.S. dollar if investors consider the issuing economy to be strong. This is because foreign investors will look to purchase investments in the applicable currency, driving up its demand.

Foreign Currency Appreciation vs. U.S. Inflation

Here is how the four largest non-U.S. reserve currencies have performed from 1981-2020. We measured a foreign currency’s appreciation against the U.S. dollar using annual exchange rates. U.S. inflation was measured by the percentage change in the average consumer price index for all urban consumers. Neither metric was seasonally adjusted.

YearAverage U.S. InflationEuropean euroChinese yuanJapanese yenBritish pound
20201.2%1.9%0.1%2.1%0.5%
20191.8%-5.6%-4.5%1.3%-4.7%
20182.4%4.4%2.2%1.5%3.5%
20172.1%2.0%-1.8%-3.2%-5.2%
20161.3%-0.2%-5.7%10.2%-12.8%
20150.1%-19.8%-2.0%-14.5%-7.9%
20141.6%0.1%-0.2%-8.3%5.1%
20131.5%3.2%2.6%-22.3%-1.4%
20122.1%-8.3%2.4%-0.2%-1.2%
20113.1%4.8%4.5%9.2%3.7%
20101.6%-5.1%0.9%6.3%-1.4%
2009-0.3%-5.7%1.7%9.4%-18.4%
20083.8%6.9%8.7%12.2%-8.0%
20072.9%8.4%4.6%-1.3%7.9%
20063.2%0.9%2.7%-5.6%1.3%
20053.4%0.1%1.0%-1.8%-0.7%
20042.7%9.0%0.0%6.7%10.8%
20032.3%16.5%0.0%7.4%8.1%
20021.6%5.3%0.0%-3.0%4.2%
20012.8%-3.1%0.0%-12.8%-5.3%
20003.4%-15.4%0.0%5.2%-6.7%
19992.2%N/A0.3%13.2%-2.5%
19981.5%N/A0.2%-8.2%1.2%
19972.3%N/A0.2%-11.3%4.7%
19962.9%N/A0.4%-15.8%-1.1%
19952.8%N/A3.1%8.0%3.0%
19942.6%N/A-49.5%8.0%2.0%
19933.0%N/A-4.7%12.4%-17.6%
19923.0%N/A-3.5%5.8%-0.1%
19914.2%N/A-11.3%7.2%-0.9%
19905.4%N/A-27.2%-5.0%8.2%
19894.8%N/A-1.0%-7.7%-8.7%
19884.1%N/A0.0%11.4%7.9%
19873.6%N/A-7.8%14.1%10.5%
19861.9%N/A-17.6%29.4%11.6%
19853.5%N/A-26.3%-0.4%-3.0%
19844.4%N/A-17.6%0.0%-13.4%
19833.2%N/A-4.4%4.6%-15.3%
19826.2%N/A-11.0%-12.9%-15.8%
198110.4%N/A--2.7%-14.8%

Note: The euro was created in 1999, which is why annual appreciation data against the U.S. dollar is not applicable prior to 2000. The Chinese yuan / U.S. dollar foreign exchange rate was not available for 1980, which is why annual appreciation for 1981 is unavailable.

The Best and Worst Inflation Hedges, Historically

Based on available data, here is the percentage of time each currency’s annual appreciation was greater than the U.S. inflation rate.

European euroChinese yuanJapanese yenBritish pound
43%18%48%33%

The Japanese yen acted as the best inflation hedge, with its annual appreciation beating U.S. inflation 48% of the time. Demand for the safe haven currency has historically been strong for three main reasons:

  • After the Japanese banking crisis of the late 1990s, the government introduced a number of policy measures. This helped Japan enter the global financial crisis with a relatively stable banking system.
  • Japan is the largest creditor nation, meaning the value of foreign assets held by Japanese investors is higher than the value of Japanese assets owned by foreign investors. In times of market uncertainty, the money of Japanese investors tends to return home—driving up demand for the yen.
  • To take advantage of near-zero interest rates in Japan, investors conduct “carry trades” where they borrow funds in Japan and lend or invest in countries where returns are higher. During turbulent markets, investors may unwind these trades, furthering demand for the yen.

The Chinese yuan has been the worst inflation hedge, with the yuan’s appreciation beating U.S. inflation only 18% of the time since 1982. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the yuan was pegged against the U.S. dollar in 1994 to keep the yuan low and make China’s exports competitive.

In 2005, China moved to a “managed float” system where the price of the yuan is allowed to fluctuate in a narrow band relative to a basket of foreign currencies. This shift led to the yuan appreciating against the U.S. dollar in some years.

The Risks of Currency as an Inflation Hedge

As the chart makes clear, investing in foreign currencies can be very volatile. Not only can currency depreciation lead to losses, there are additional factors for investors to consider such as geopolitical risks.

Of course, the effectiveness of foreign currencies as an inflation hedge depends on their attractiveness relative to the U.S. dollar. If a country is also affected by the factors causing U.S. inflation—such as an increase in the money supply—its currency could be negatively affected.

Given the uncertainties associated with this strategy, investors may want to consider foreign currencies alongside other asset classes to help manage inflation risk.

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