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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

Explainer: A Visual Introduction to Fed Tapering

Broadly speaking, Fed tapering is the reversal of quantitative easing. We show the history of Federal Reserve bond tapering and how it works.

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Fed Tapering

Explainer: A Visual Introduction to Fed Tapering

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The Federal Reserve began tapering its large-scale asset purchases in November 2021, a move likely influenced by:

  • Rising inflation
  • Improving unemployment
  • Strong U.S. GDP growth

More than $4 trillion in capital was injected into the economy through quantitative easing (QE), over the course of the pandemic, inflation is at 40-year highs, and unemployment levels hover below 4%.

As Fed policy responds to a recovering U.S. economy, this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows how Fed tapering works, and its impact on the economy.

How Fed Tapering Works

Fed tapering is the unwinding of the Federal Reserve’s large-scale asset purchases.

After the 2008 financial crisis, large scale asset purchases were introduced for the first time to inject liquidity into the market and help restore confidence. During the pandemic, they were introduced once more, at a rate of $120 billion per month.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The U.S. central bank buys government bonds typically in the form of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities (MBS).
  2. This influx of demand leads to a rise in these bond prices and their yields (interest rates) fall.
  3. As this lowers the interest rate on the government bonds, what often follows is lower interest rates on loans for households and businesses.
  4. Lower rates stimulate spending.
  5. When the economy is running well, the bank may unwind asset purchases to help keep inflation low, otherwise known as Fed tapering.
  6. Notably, Fed tapering and QE is hotly debated among economists. Those in favor say QE is a critical tool for stimulating the economy. Those against say that it inflates asset prices and contributes to inequality.

    Inflation Levels

    The consumer price index (CPI) rose 7% in December, the highest rise since 1982.
    Fed Tapering

    Given this increase, Lawrence Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Jason Furman, former chief economist for President Obama say that the Fed didn’t taper soon enough. Other financial heavyweights suggest this is just the beginning of a hawkish approach to inflation.

    So how does Fed tapering impact inflation?

    By tapering asset purchases, the amount of money circulating in the economy that can be used to borrow to buy a house or car is reduced. According to this theory, when there is less spending, inflation will gradually cool down.

    Fed Tapering and Interest Rates

    The Federal Reserve has outlined that it will taper asset purchases before it increases targets on short-term interest rates. By current estimates, interest rates could rise in March.

    However, if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse, the Federal Reserve can shift direction. This gives the Fed time to assess how the market and economy will react before it raises rates.

    To prevent the taper tantrum of 2013, which led to market volatility and U.S. dollar appreciation, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell has stated that the Fed must carefully communicate the sequence of QE and tapering to prevent any fear in the market.

    When Doves Cry

    Like the 1940s, the rise in money growth over the pandemic has been driven by government deficits. By contrast, leading up to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or during the 1950s and 60s, the private sector spurred loan growth.

    Monetary inflation can impact consumer prices and financial asset inflation.

    As CPI and financial markets have soared over the pandemic, investors will be watching closely to see how Fed tapering impacts future monetary policy.

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Markets in a Minute

Ranked: Real Estate Returns by Property Sector (2012-2021)

From residential to retail, are there patterns in real estate return on investment? We rank them by sector over the last decade to find out.

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Real Estate Return on Investment by Sector

For the ninth year in a row, Americans say real estate is the best long-term investment.

However, what might be less clear to the average investor are the different types of investments available within the real estate sector, and how they compare. Real estate return on investment within property sectors has historically been uneven, and 2021 was no exception. While residential property soared, office real estate has performed relatively poorly.

Are there any patterns in the top performers over time?

This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments ranks real estate return on investment by sector over the last decade.

Sector Returns Over Time

We used data from the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts to show real estate return on investment by year. A real estate investment trust is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-producing real estate.

Here’s how total returns stack up by property sector, sorted from highest to lowest return in 2021.

 2012201320142015201620172018201920202021
Self Storage19.9%9.5%31.4%40.7%-8.1%3.7%2.9%13.7%12.9%57.6%
Residential6.9%-5.4%40.0%17.1%4.5%6.6%3.1%30.9%-10.7%45.8%
Industrial31.3%7.4%21.0%2.6%30.7%20.6%-2.5%48.7%12.2%45.4%
Retail26.7%1.9%27.6%4.6%1.0%-4.8%-5.0%10.7%-25.2%41.9%
Diversified12.2%4.3%27.2%-0.5%10.3%-0.1%-12.5%24.1%-21.8%20.5%
Infrastructure29.9%4.8%20.2%3.7%10.0%35.4%7.0%42.0%7.3%18.6%
Timber37.1%7.9%8.6%-7.0%8.3%21.9%-32.0%42.0%10.3%16.4%
Mortgage19.9%-2.0%17.9%-8.9%22.9%19.8%-2.5%21.3%-18.8%14.7%
Office14.2%5.6%25.9%0.3%13.2%5.3%-14.5%31.4%-18.4%13.4%
Healthcare20.4%-7.1%33.3%-7.3%6.4%0.9%7.6%21.2%-9.9%7.7%
Lodging/Resorts12.5%27.2%32.5%-24.4%24.3%7.2%-12.8%15.7%-23.6%6.3%

Data for 2021 is as of November 30. Specialty and data center sectors are excluded as this data was only available from 2015 onwards.

Self Storage real estate was the best performing sector for the last two years, and also performed well during the 2015 market correction. It tends to perform well when people’s lives are disrupted, such as when they’re moving for a new job, schooling, or due to marriage or divorce. In the case of COVID-19, self storage got an extra boost from people wanting more space in their home amid remote work.

Timber and Industrial real estate have been in the top three performing sectors for at least half of the last decade. Industrial real estate, a category including properties that enable the production, storage, and distribution of goods, has seen increased demand due to the rise of e-commerce. One estimate says the U.S. could require an extra billion square feet of warehouse space by 2025.

On the other hand, the Lodging/Resort sector has frequently been one of the bottom performers. A form of discretionary spending, hotel stays may be one of the first expenses people cut when the economy is in a downturn. This weakness was compounded by lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is a Good Return on Investment in Real Estate?

In light of the above data, investors may be wondering which sectors are “the best” to invest in.

The short answer: it depends. Here’s how real estate return on investment has varied within sectors, using the minimum, median, and maximum returns. We’ve sorted the data from the highest to lowest standard deviation, a measure of risk.

Real Estate Return on Investment

While Timber and Self Storage have delivered strong returns, they have also been relatively risky, with some of the widest variations in returns.

Industrials have seen the highest median return, and their risk is about middle of the pack. The second highest median return goes to the Mortgage sector, which earns income from the interest on mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. The mortgage sector has seen less risk than most other real estate categories, at least in the last decade.

For investors with a lower risk tolerance, Infrastructure may be a sector to consider. These properties had a positive return on investment for all of the last 10 years, and had the lowest risk of any property sector.

Patterns Within Real Estate Return on Investment

By looking at historical patterns, investors can consider how economic conditions may affect real estate return on investment.

Sectors associated with discretionary spending, such as Retail and Lodging, have tended to perform poorly during downturns. On the other hand, Self Storage and Residential properties have historically been more resilient during the 2015 selloff and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Future trends may also offer food for thought. For example, as the population ages and the government puts an increased focus on critical facilities, could the Healthcare and Infrastructure sectors be poised for growth?

Whichever sector(s) an investor focuses in on, real estate serves as an alternative investment that can help diversify any portfolio.

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