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

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History of U.S. Interest Rates

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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

The Top Sources Americans Use to Make Investment Decisions (2001-2019)

Americans rely on business professionals the most when making investment decisions, but the internet has become increasingly important.

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This infographic is available as a poster.

How People Make Investment Decisions

When you’re making investment decisions, there can be a lot of different things to consider. Which types of asset classes should you hold? How much risk are you comfortable with? How much will you need to retire?

It’s no surprise, then, that few Americans make these decisions on their own. This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments shows which sources of information families rely on for investment decisions, and how their popularity has changed over time.

The Main Sources of Investment Information Over Time

According to data from the U.S. Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, here is the percentage of families who reported using each source.

Source200120102019
Business professionals49%57%57%
Internet15%33%45%
Friends, relatives, associates36%40%44%
Advertisements and media27%26%20%
Calling around19%16%13%
Other15%8%9%
Does not invest9%12%8%

Other consists of nine options: don’t shop, material from work, past experience, personal research, other institution, self or spouse, shop around, store or dealer, and telemarketer.

Business professionals, such as financial planners, accountants, and lawyers, remain the most relied upon source. Their popularity has remained stable since 2010.

Traditional advertisements and media, such as through TV and radio, have dropped in overall popularity. The percentage of Americans who call around to financial institutions for investment information has also declined.

Conversely, friends, relatives, and associates have grown in popularity as an information source. Meanwhile, the internet has been the fastest-growing source, used by three times more families in 2019 compared to 2001.

Digital Investment Decisions

A separate survey conducted by consulting firm Brunswick revealed the specific places people go online when making investment decisions.

Digital Investment Decisions

Search engines, blogs, and specialist email newsletters are the most popular sources. Among blogs, Seeking Alpha is the most popular, used by 34% of those surveyed.

Twitter and LinkedIn are the most commonly-used social media platforms. The proportion of investors using Twitter for information has grown by 36 percentage points since 2014.

Implications for Investors and Advisors

If you’re an investor, this information can help you gauge how your research process compares to the general American population. Is your preferred information source popular with others, or is it less common? For those who have yet to get started investing, this may give you some ideas on where you can start looking for information.

If you’re an advisor, these research trends can have important implications for your business. While business professionals remain the most-used source, other sources of information are shifting. Traditional advertising and inbound calls from potential clients continue to be less common. Instead, advisors may want to shift their focus to building an online presence and increasing referrals from existing clients.

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Markets in a Minute

Visualizing Asset Class Correlation Over 25 Years (1996-2020)

To minimize volatility, it’s important to consider asset class correlation. Learn how correlation has changed over time depending on macroeconomic events.

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Asset Class

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Asset Class Correlation Over 25 Years

How can you minimize the impact of a market crash on your portfolio? One main strategy is building a portfolio with asset classes that have low or negative correlation.

However, the correlation between asset classes can change depending on macroeconomic factors. In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we show the correlation of select asset classes and how they have shifted over time.

What is Correlation?

Correlation measures how closely the price movement of two asset classes are related. For example, consider asset class A and B.

  • If asset class A rises 10% and asset class B also rises 10%, they have a perfect positive correlation of 1.
  • If asset class A rises 10% and asset class B doesn’t move at all, they have no correlation.
  • If asset class A drops 10% and asset class B rises 10%, they have a perfect negative correlation of -1.

When investors are building a portfolio, asset classes with negative correlation or no correlation are most desirable. This is because if one asset class drops during a market downturn, the other asset class will either rise or be unaffected.

Correlation Between Stock Categories

Stock categories have historically had some level of positive correlation. Here are the correlations for small and large cap stocks, as well as developed and emerging market stocks.

 U.S. Small Cap vs. U.S. Large Cap StocksDeveloped vs. Emerging Market Stocks
19960.640.51
19970.630.76
19980.970.87
19990.580.80
20000.380.74
20010.870.78
20020.730.90
20030.850.75
20040.830.79
20050.930.93
20060.750.93
20070.890.75
20080.960.95
20090.910.88
20100.960.97
20110.970.89
20120.910.89
20130.860.86
20140.750.78
20150.820.76
20160.890.73
20170.390.14
20180.880.73
20190.940.91
20200.930.89
Min0.380.14
Max0.970.97

Rolling 1-year correlations based on monthly returns.

When macroeconomic conditions are strong, the correlation between stock categories tends to be lower as investors focus on individual company prospects. However, when market volatility rises, stocks tend to become more correlated as investors move to safer assets.

This was the case in 1998, when small and large cap stocks reached a peak correlation of 0.97. Russia defaulted on its debt, and a highly-leveraged hedge fund called Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) faced its own defaults as a result. Many banks and pension funds were invested in LTCM, and the Federal Reserve bailed out the fund to avoid a bigger crisis.

Shortly thereafter, small and large cap stock correlation reached a low in 2000. The dotcom bubble initially burst among large cap stocks, impacting some of the world’s largest companies. Small cap stocks didn’t see losses until 2002.

For developed and emerging markets, correlation peaked in 2010 when many countries were recovering from the global financial crisis. On the other end of the scale, correlation plummeted to its lowest level in 2017. One reason is that emerging markets became more distinct from one another due to their varying political risk and sector makeup.

Bonds, Commodities, and Currencies

In contrast to stock categories, there are some asset class pairings that have provided a low or negative correlation. Here is historical correlation data for U.S. stocks and bonds, as well as gold and the U.S. dollar.

 U.S. Stocks vs. U.S. BondsGold vs. U.S. Dollar
19960.510.29
19970.68-0.40
1998-0.41-0.19
19990.34-0.36
20000.40-0.44
2001-0.39-0.38
2002-0.72-0.30
2003-0.04-0.43
20040.04-0.65
2005-0.20-0.27
20060.28-0.86
2007-0.44-0.55
20080.34-0.67
20090.64-0.33
2010-0.580.29
2011-0.35-0.59
2012-0.37-0.53
20130.33-0.11
20140.24-0.60
2015-0.26-0.10
2016-0.21-0.58
2017-0.09-0.23
2018-0.26-0.51
2019-0.37-0.51
20200.29-0.43
Min-0.72-0.86
Max0.680.29

Rolling 1-year correlations based on monthly returns.

Stocks and bonds generally have low correlation, with negative correlation in 14 of the last 25 years. Correlation tends to be highest during periods of high inflation expectations. On the flip side, correlation is typically lower during periods of low inflation expectations or high stock market volatility.

These factors contributed to negative correlation in 1998 during the Asian Financial Crisis. Stock prices flattened due to company trade relationships with Asian economies, while bonds benefited from lower rates and lower inflation. In 2002, high market volatility due to the dotcom bubble resulted in stocks and bonds reaching their most negative correlation.

Similarly, gold and the U.S. dollar generally move in opposite directions, with negative correlation in 23 of the last 25 years. When optimism in the U.S. economy is high, the U.S. dollar tends to rise. Conversely, when there are concerns about the U.S. economy or inflation, gold is considered a safe asset that holds its value.

In 2006, gold and the U.S. dollar reached their most negative correlation. As the beginnings of the subprime mortgage crisis appeared, investors piled into safe haven assets such as gold. In 2010, gold and the US dollar had a brief moment of positive correlation. Concerned about the European debt crisis, investors sought safe haven assets elsewhere, including both gold and the U.S. dollar.

Choosing Asset Classes

As investors think about which asset classes to include in their portfolios, it’s important to consider correlation. For instance, stock categories have historically been positively correlated. To diversify, investors may want to consider bonds and alternative assets such as gold.

In addition, macroeconomic events such as financial crises can have an impact on correlation, and investors may want to monitor these changes over time. Finally, considering the risk and return characteristics of various asset classes will allow investors to build a portfolio best suited to their needs.

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