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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

Wall Street vs Main Street: The Stock Market is Not the Economy

To give context to the Wall Street vs Main Street debate, we compare S&P 500 returns and U.S. GDP growth since 1980.

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Wall Street vs Main Street

This infographic is available as a poster.

Wall Street vs Main Street

In 2020, the stock market and the economy had a very public break up. The Wall Street vs Main Street divide—the gap between America’s financial markets and the economy—was growing. By the end of the year, the S&P 500 Index closed at a record high. In contrast, 20 million Americans remained unemployed, up from 2 million at the start of the year.

Was 2020 an outlier, or does the performance of the stock market typically diverge from the economy? In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we show U.S. economic growth and stock market performance over the last four decades, to see how closely the two relate.

GDP Growth and S&P 500 Returns

Here’s how annual GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns stack up from 1980 to the second quarter of 2021. Both metrics are net of inflation.

YearReal GDP GrowthReal S&P 500 Returns
1980-0.3%13.9%
19812.5%-18.3%
1982-1.8%10.8%
19834.6%13.4%
19847.2%-2.5%
19854.2%23.0%
19863.5%12.9%
19873.5%-2.2%
19884.2%7.9%
19893.7%22.4%
19901.9%-12.4%
1991-0.1%23.4%
19923.5%1.4%
19932.8%4.4%
19944.0%-4.2%
19952.7%31.4%
19963.8%17.2%
19974.4%29.3%
19984.5%25.1%
19994.8%16.6%
20004.1%-13.5%
20011.0%-14.6%
20021.7%-26.0%
20032.9%24.5%
20043.8%5.8%
20053.5%-0.7%
20062.9%11.4%
20071.9%-0.6%
2008-0.1%-39.2%
2009-2.5%21.6%
20102.6%11.1%
20111.6%-3.1%
20122.2%11.6%
20131.8%28.3%
20142.5%10.9%
20153.1%-1.4%
20161.7%7.3%
20172.3%17.2%
20183.0%-8.1%
20192.2%26.8%
2020-3.5%14.9%
Q1 20211.5%4.5%
Q2 20211.6%5.8%

Note: For Q1 and Q2 2021, real GDP growth and inflation rates are quarterly rates and are seasonally adjusted.

More often than not, GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns have both been positive. The late ‘90s saw particularly strong economic activity and stock performance. According to the White House, economic growth was bolstered by cutting the deficit, modernizing job training, and increasing exports. Meanwhile, increasing investor confidence and the growing tech bubble led to annual stock market returns that exceeded 20%.

In the selected timeframe, only 2008 saw a decline in both the stock market and the economy. This was, of course, caused by the Global Financial Crisis. Banks lent out subprime mortgages, or mortgages to people with impaired credit ratings. These mortgages were then pooled together and repackaged into investments such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS). When interest rates rose and home prices collapsed, this led to mortgage defaults and financial institution bankruptcies as many MBS investments became worthless.

Moving in Opposite Directions

What about when the Wall Street vs Main Street divide grows?

Historically, it has been more common to see positive GDP growth and negative stock performance. For example, real GDP grew by a whopping 7% in 1984 due to “Reaganomics”, such as tax cuts and anti-inflation monetary policy. However, the stock market declined as rising treasury yields of up to 14% made fixed income investments more attractive than equities.

On the other hand, in five of the six years with negative GDP growth, there have been positive stock returns. The most recent example of this is 2020. Real GDP declined by 3.5%, while the S&P 500 returned almost 15% net of inflation.

The Stock Market is not the Economy

There are a number of reasons why the stock market may not necessarily reflect what is happening in the economy.

  • The stock market reflects long-term views. A stock’s price factors in what investors think a company will earn in the future. If investors are confident in the likelihood of an economic recovery, stock prices will likely rise. In contrast, GDP growth is a hard measure of current activity.
  • Sector weightings in the stock market do not reflect their contributions to GDP. The stock market remained resilient in 2020 largely because technology, media, and telecom (TMT) stocks performed well. Despite making up 35% of the market cap of the largest 1,000 U.S. stocks, these companies only account for 8% of U.S. GDP. In contrast, hard-hit companies such as restaurants and gyms generate lots of jobs and contribute materially to GDP. However, many of these businesses accounted for a small portion of the stock market or are not even publicly listed.
  • Fiscal policy lags behind monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) can act quickly. For instance, the Fed bought $1.7 trillion of Treasury securities between mid-March and June 2020 to stabilize financial markets. On the other hand, fiscal support requires legislative approvals. The U.S. government initially provided large-scale economic stimulus through the CARES Act in March 2020, but further relief packages were stalled due to political disagreements.

While many factors are at play, the above can help explain the Wall Street vs Main Street divide.

Wall Street vs Main Street: Together and Apart

Over the last 41 years, the economy and the stock market have moved in opposite directions almost as often as they have moved in the same direction. Here’s a summary of their movements from 1980-2020.

 # of Years
Stock Growth, GDP Growth22
Stock Decline, GDP Growth13
Stock Growth, GDP Decline5
Stock Decline, GDP Decline1

Since 1980, these time periods of differing performance have never lasted more than three consecutive years. In fact, one economist described the stock market and the unemployment rate as two people walking down the street, tethered by a rope.

”When the rope is slack, they move apart. But they can never get too far away from each other.”
—Roger Farmer, University of Warwick economist

After their public breakup in 2020, the Wall Street vs Main Street divide appears to have healed. In the first two quarters of 2021, both the stock market and the economy saw growth. Perhaps it’s easiest to sum up their relationship in two words: it’s complicated.

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Markets in a Minute

Data Centers: Investing in the Infrastructure of the Future

Infrastructure refers to any asset that provides an essential service. In today’s interconnected world, data centers are exactly that.

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Data Centers

This infographic is available as a poster.

Data Centers: Investing in the Infrastructure of the Future

Digital transformation is one of the world’s most prominent trends today.

For evidence, consider the growth in internet users worldwide. By 2023, 5.3 billion people (66% of population) will be using the internet, up from 3.9 billion (51% of population) in 2018.

This growth has resulted in an incredible amount of data being produced each day, whether its from streaming music on Spotify or buying goods on Amazon. But how is all this data being processed?

In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we shed light on the importance of data centers, and why they should be considered as core infrastructure.

The Role of the Data Center

A data center is a facility that stores, processes, and disseminates data. There are thousands of them around the world, and collectively, they’re referred to as the “cloud”.

This puts data centers at the center of nearly everything we do online: e-commerce, communications, storage and back-up, and even online gaming. To gain a better sense of what this all looks like, the following table breaks down the storage capacity of the world’s data centers.

Segment2016 Storage Capacity (exabytes)2021 Storage Capacity (exabytes) 
Compute160470
Collaboration170400
Database & analytics150380
Enterprise resource planning180420
Video streaming50180
Social networking60160
Search engine30100
Other consumer apps70190
Total8702,300

Source: Statista (2021)

One exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes, which means the world currently has 2.3 trillion gigabytes of total storage.

The largest segment is compute instances, which are cloud-based workstations used by data scientists. At the lower end of the scale are segments like video streaming (includes Netflix and Hulu) and social networking (think Facebook or LinkedIn).

Cloud Spending Reaches a Historic Milestone

For businesses that create and use data, moving to the cloud (as opposed to maintaining their own servers) has plenty of advantages like cost savings, flexibility, and security.

This is driving exponential growth in cloud infrastructure spending, which reached a record $130 billion in 2020. At the same time, spending on data center hardware decreased from $96 to $90 billion. These results are partly attributed to COVID-19, which forced many businesses to switch to a work-from-home operating model.

A survey conducted by 451 Research found that 40% of businesses had increased their usage of cloud services during the pandemic. In addition, 85% of those who were impacted indicated that the move would be a permanent one.

Data Centers are Infrastrcture

The scope of an infrastructure investor has historically been limited to companies in construction, energy, and transportation.

But what defines infrastructure?

It’s any physical system that is vital for an economy’s development and prosperity—and in a world where over 5 billion people are expected to be online by 2023, the data center is the perfect embodiment of that.

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