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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

Identifying Trends With the Relative Strength Index

When is the S&P 500 Index considered overbought or oversold? The relative strength index may offer some answers to identifying market trends.

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Identifying Market Trends: The Relative Strength Index

What happens when the S&P 500 Index enters oversold territory? Does the market reverse, or continue on this trend?

A widely-used momentum indicator, the relative strength index (RSI) may offer some insight. The RSI is an indicator that may show when a stock or index is overbought or oversold during a specific period of time, indicating a potential buying opportunity.

This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments looks at the RSI of the S&P 500 Index over the last three decades to show how the market performed after different periods of overbought or oversold conditions

What is the Relative Strength Index?

The RSI measures the scale of price movements of a stock or index. In short, the RSI is used to calculate the average gains of a stock divided by the average losses over a certain time period. These are then tracked across a scale of 0 to 100. Broadly speaking, a stock is considered overbought if it reads 70 or above and it is considered oversold if it is 30 or below.

For example, when the S&P 500 Index has a RSI of 85, an investor may consider it overbought and sell their shares. Conversely, if the RSI hits 25, an investor may buy the S&P 500 thinking the market will bounce back.

The RSI is often used with other indicators to identify market trends.

The Relative Strength Index and S&P 500 Returns

Below, we show the 12-month returns of the S&P 500 Index after key ‘overbought’ or ‘oversold’ conditions in the market as indicated by the RSI:

DateRSIShiller PE Ratio*S&P 500 Index 12-Month Return
Jul 15 200220239.4%
Dec 4 200673274.5%
Oct 13 200815167.3%
Feb 7 201175231.9%
May 13 2013752316.1%
Jan 8 20188933-7.2%
Mar 16 2020222566.3%
May 3 202172370.0%

*Measured by the average inflation-adjusted earnings of the S&P over 10 years

As the above table shows, following each period of extremely oversold territory in the RSI, the S&P 500 Index had positive returns.

In fact, the S&P 500 Index had the strongest one-year returns following the COVID-19 crisis of March 2020, with over 66% 12-month returns. During the time of extreme fear, the RSI sank to deeply oversold territory before sharply rebounding.

Interestingly, following periods of extremely overbought conditions in the market there was a range of positive and negative performance. Most recently, before the peak of the last cycle in 2021, the S&P 500 Index spent roughly 9 months in ‘overbought’ territory before declining into 2022.

The Relative Strength Index in 2022

With the economy in uncertain territory, how does the RSI look today?

In early June, following a bleak consumer sentiment announcement, the RSI fell to 30, hovering on oversold territory. Since then, it has risen closer to 40 as consumer sentiment and perspectives on economic conditions have slightly improved.

However, whether or not the RSI will continue on this uptrend remains to be seen.

For the remainder of 2022, market sentiment, which may be shaped by the coming GDP and inflation figures, could push RSI into oversold territory once again. As a bright spot this may be good news—reinforcing a turning point in the market.

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Markets in a Minute

Visualized: How Bonds Help Reduce Bear Market Risk

How have bonds historically performed during a bear market? How have different stock and bond allocations performed?

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Bear Market Risk

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Visualized: How Bonds Help Reduce Bear Market Risk

Which tactics can investors use to reduce portfolio downside risk?

One time-tested method is allocating to bonds. Bonds have sheltered portfolio losses during bear markets thanks to the lower risk profile of bonds compared to stocks. Often, when stocks declined during market selloffs, safer assets like bonds tended to increase as the demand for stability grew.

This Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments shows the performance of bonds and stocks during bear markets since World War II.

Bond Performance During Bear Markets

Bear markets are defined as a 20% or more decline in U.S. large cap stocks from peak to trough. Since World War II, bear markets have occurred less frequently than bull markets, with the U.S. stock market spending 29% in a bear market versus 71% in a bull market.

With this in mind, we show how a spectrum of portfolio asset allocations to stocks and bonds have performed over the last several bear markets.

  • Stocks: represented by U.S. large cap stocks
  • Bonds: represented by U.S. intermediate government bonds, which are issued with maturity dates between two and five years
Allocation (Stock / Bond)Average DrawdownAverage Time Until Recovery*
100% / 0%-34%3.3 years
90% / 10%-31%3.2 years
80% / 20%-28%2.9 years
70% / 30%-24%2.8 years
60% / 40%-20%2.5 years
50% / 50%-16%2.1 years
40% / 60%-11%1.2 years
30% / 70%-7%0.8 years
20% / 80%-4%0.8 years
10% / 90%-2%0.5 years
0% / 100%-1%0.2 years

*Length of time until new all-time high

For a 100% stock portfolio, the average drawdown was -34%, with 3.3 years until recovery—the time it took to reach a new all-time high.

Comparatively, a portfolio entirely made up of bonds fell -1% on average during bear markets with a recovery time of just a few months.

Balanced Portfolios in Bear Markets

Looking closer, we show how adding bonds to a portfolio has cushioned portfolio losses over the following market downturns, sometimes by as much as 20 percentage points.

Bear Market100% Stock Portfolio Max Drawdown60/40 Portfolio Max Drawdown
2020-20%-10%
2008-51%-30%
2001-45%-22%
1988-30%-17%
1973-43%-26%
1969-29%-18%
1962-22%-13%
1947-22%-13%

A balanced 60/40 portfolio had a 20% average drawdown, recovering in 2.5 years. During the 2020 COVID-19 crash, for instance, a 60/40 portfolio fell almost 10% and fully recovered in six months. By contrast, a 100% stock portfolio declined nearly 20%.

In all of the above historical downturns, investors with a diversified portfolio have been better positioned in a bear market.

Building Portfolio Strength

Bonds have historically seen less volatility than stocks during tougher financial conditions. Typically, riskier assets like stocks have been more prone to market fluctuations than bonds.

To prepare for a bear market, investors can structure a portfolio that aligns with their risk tolerance. Over the long run, the diversification benefits of bonds have been fundamental to protecting portfolios and lowering risk.

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