This column has contended for several years, based on empirical data observations from several countries, that low interest rates worldwide were killing productivity growth. A University of Chicago paper finally provides some academic back-up for this contention and suggests a mechanism through which it takes place. There are other mechanisms also, and I would suggest that the Ben Bernanke-inspired wild monetary experimentation from 2008 on has done more damage to the world economy than any other initiative in the history of mankind.
The paper,“Low interest rates, market power and productivity growth” by Ernest Liu, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, examines the behavior of firms in a competitive marketplace as interests decline, and demonstrates that, although lower interest rates at first increase competitiveness through increased investment, they also increase the comparative advantage of large firms, thus after a time discouraging the smaller firms from investing and making the market less competitive. If low interest rates persist and approach zero, eventually even the larger firms stop investing, because they are no longer subject to significant competition and thus do not need to invest.
The paper provides theoretical backing to and a possible mechanism for the observation set out in this column on several occasions in the last few years: that ultra-low interest rates in Japan, the Eurozone, Britain and the United States were closely correlated with unprecedented declines in the rate of productivity growth in those countries. In all the high-income industrial countries where interest rates were held artificially low after 2008, productivity growth by 2016 had effectively disappeared altogether, or close to it. The worst effects were seen in the eurozone and in Britain, where inflation continued, making real interest rates sharply negative. Even in Japan, where interest rates have been held artificially low for two decades, the productivity dearth worsened substantially after 2009.
Only after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in the United States did U.S. productivity growth begin recovering towards its healthy historical levels. Undoubtedly part of this recovery was due to the Trump administration’s de-regulation policies – just ceasing to pile regulation upon regulation appears to have had some positive effect, especially in industries sensitive to environmental-regulatory harassment.