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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

Four Types of ESG Strategies for Investors

Amid a global wave of green investment, this graphic breaks down four types of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies.

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ESG Strategies

This infographic is available as a poster.

Four Types of ESG Strategies for Investors

In recent years, sustainable investment strategies have shown a number of benefits for investors, from resilience in market downturns to share outperformance in the long-term.

Meanwhile, investor interest has skyrocketed—with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) indexes advancing 40% between 2019 and 2020 alone. Given the increased demand for green investments, investors have an ever-expanding list of options to choose from. But what ESG approach is the right fit for you?

To answer this question, this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments looks at the primary strategies used in ESG investing to help investors choose the approach that works best for their portfolio.

What Kind of Investor are You?

Broadly speaking, there are four main approaches to ESG investing: ESG integration, exclusionary investing, inclusionary investing, and impact investing.

1. ESG Integration

“I want to integrate ESG factors and traditional factors to assess the risk/reward profile of my investment.”

For example, using an ESG integration approach, a company’s water usage and toxic emissions would be assessed against financial factors to analyze any future risks or investment opportunities.

2. Exclusionary Investing

“I want to screen out controversial companies or sectors that do not meet my sustainability criteria.”

Using an exclusionary investing approach, an investor may screen out companies whose revenues are from tobacco, gambling, or fossil fuels.

Related ESG Terms:

  • Negative Screening
  • Negative Selection
  • Socially Responsible Investing (SRI)

3. Inclusionary Investing

“I want to seek out companies that are ranked highly in their sector based on sustainability criteria.”

With an inclusionary approach, a fund may include the leading companies in a sector, relative to their peers, such as the top performing tech companies in ESG.

Related ESG Terms:

  • Positive Screening
  • Positive Selection
  • Best-In-Class
  • Positive Tilt
  • Thematic Investing

4. Impact Investing

“I want to invest in companies that attempt to deliver a measurable social and/or environmental impact alongside financial returns.”

Lastly, impact investing approaches may focus specifically on renewable energy companies that have the intent to make a positive environmental impact.

Related ESG Terms:

  • Goal-Based Investing
  • Thematic Investing

ESG Investing Strategies, By Market

How does interest in ESG strategies vary according to geographical region? Overall, interest has increased across all regions globally (where data was available).

Interest in ESG By Market*20182020
India98%100%
Mainland China95%98%
UAE90%94%
MexicoN/A92%
France79%91%
Brazil82%90%
JapanN/A88%
Hong Kong, SAR China71%86%
South AfricaN/A83%
Germany64%81%
Singapore77%78%
United Kingdom51%77%
Canada49%68%
Australia49%65%
U.S.49%57%

*With interest in these strategies and already employing them
Source: CFA Institute (Dec, 2020)

At the top was India, where 100% of respondents expressed interest or were already using ESG strategies—up from 96% in 2018.

In fact, India developed National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental, and Economic Responsibilities of Business as far back as 2011. This was designed as a guideline for responsible business conduct, which later aligned to the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.

Following closely behind were investors in China (98%) and UAE (94%).

By contrast, 57% of investors in the U.S. employed ESG strategies—the lowest among geographic regions. Despite this, in the last two years, this figure jumped 8%, and it may rise higher yet given U.S. president Joe Biden’s new climate priorities. Electric grid and clean energy, decarbonization, and electric vehicle incentives all fall under a massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which will likely have a significant impact on the dialogue surrounding ESG.

Going Green

As the global drive for ESG investment continues to rise, investors can harness a greater understanding of different ESG strategies to meet their personal objectives—whether it is risk/reward analysis, seeking out ESG top performers, or a measurable environmental impact.

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Markets in a Minute

Visualizing U.S. Stock Ownership Over Time (1965-2019)

The proportion of U.S. stock owned by foreigners has climbed to 40%, while U.S. stock ownership within taxable accounts has decreased.

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Stock Ownership

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U.S. Stock Ownership Over Time (1965-2019)

The U.S. stock market is the largest in the world, with total U.S. stock ownership amounting to almost $40 trillion in 2019. But who owns all these equities?

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we show the percentage of U.S. stock owned by various groups, and how the proportions have changed over time.

The Groups Who Own U.S. Stock

Based on calculations from the Tax Policy Center, here is the breakdown of U.S. stock ownership as of the year 2019.

CategoryShare of U.S. StockValue
Foreigners40%$16.0T
Retirement accounts30%$12.0T
Taxable accounts24%$9.5T
Non-profits5%$2.0T
Government1%$368B

Foreigners own the most U.S. stock. Their portion of ownership has grown rapidly, climbing from about 5% in 1965 to 40% in 2019. Foreign ownership exists in two forms: portfolio holdings and foreign direct investment. The former includes holdings with less than 10% of voting stock, while the latter refers to voting stock of 10% or more.

Why has foreign ownership increased so substantially? According to the Tax Policy Center, the growth appears unrelated to U.S. corporate tax rates. Instead, the increase is likely a result of globalization, as U.S. holdings of foreign stock climbed at a similar rate over the same timeframe.

Outside of foreigners, the largest domestic ownership groups are retirement accounts and taxable accounts. Stock ownership within taxable accounts has decreased by 56 percentage points since 1965. On the flip side, U.S. households have increased stock ownership within tax-advantaged retirement accounts, which now amounts to 30% of all U.S. stock holdings.

Retirement Accounts: A Closer Look

The proportion of U.S. stock held in defined benefit plans has decreased substantially since 1965.

U.S. Stock Ownership in Retirement Accounts

Note: life insurance separate accounts are reserves that fund annuities or life insurance policies.

This drop is partly due to the general decline in private employers offering defined benefit plans. Since these pension plans guarantee employees a set amount in retirement, they present a large long-term funding burden.

At the same time, there has been a corresponding increase in U.S. stock ownership within defined contribution plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). This reflects the fact that many investors are facing more responsibility, as they must take charge of their portfolios in order to build a sufficient nest egg for retirement.

The Future of U.S. Stock Ownership

Compared to 50 years ago, the composition of U.S. stock ownership today looks very different.

Foreign ownership has increased as globalization took hold, though it’s hard to say if this rise will continue. Since 2017, foreign direct investment in the U.S. has decreased. Not only that, China surpassed the U.S. as the top destination for foreign direct investment in 2020.

In addition, the shift to particular tax-advantaged retirement accounts has been a relatively recent one. For instance, IRAs didn’t exist before 1978, and defined contribution plans started becoming popular in 1980. As circumstances continue to evolve, how will U.S. stock ownership change over the next 50 years?

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