The rising interest-rate trend in the US isn’t new and isn’t related to the Fed’s so-called “policy normalisation” program. However, it has only just started to matter.
That the rising interest-rate trend isn’t new and isn’t related to the Fed’s rate-hiking efforts is clearly illustrated by the following chart. This chart shows that the US 2-year T-Note yield began trending upward in 2011 – more than 6 years ago and more than 4 years prior to the Fed’s first rate hike.
As we go further out in duration we find later beginnings to the rising-yield trend. This is evidenced by the following three charts, the first of which shows that the 5-year yield bottomed in mid-2012, the second of which shows that the 10-year yield double-bottomed in mid-2012 and mid-2016, and the third of which shows that the 30-year yield continued to make lower lows until mid-2016. But even in the case of the 30-year yield, the rising trend is now more than 18 months old.
Given that US interest rates have been rising for more than 6 years at the short end and more than 18 months at the long end, why has the trend suddenly begun to draw a lot of attention in the mainstream press?
The answer is: because rising yields on credit instruments have begun to put downward pressure on equity prices. The stock market is capable of ignoring rising interest rates for long periods, as has been demonstrated by the market action of the past few years. However, if a rising interest-rate trend persists for long enough it transforms, as far as the stock market is concerned, from an irrelevance to the most important thing.
The way that interest rates gradually turned upward over several years despite the relentless downward pressure applied by the central bank suggests that we are dealing with the end of a very long-term decline. In other words, there’s a good chance that we are now in the early stages of a 1-2 decade (or longer) rising interest-rate trend. But how could that be, when debt levels are very high and the economy-wide savings rate is very low?
Under the current monetary regime, major upward trends in interest rates are not driven by the desire to consume more in the present (the desire to save less) or by rapidly-increasing demand for borrowed money to invest in productive enterprises. That, in essence, is a big part of the problem – interest-rate trends do not reflect what they should reflect. Instead, major upward trends in interest rates are driven primarily by rising inflation expectations, or, to put it more aptly, by declining confidence in money.
Of particular relevance, under the current monetary regime it is not only possible for a large, general increase in the desire to save to be accompanied by rising interest rates, it is highly probable that when a large rise in interest rates happens it will be accompanied by a general desire to save more. It’s just that the desire for greater savings won’t manifest itself as a greater desire to hold cash. It will, instead, manifest itself as a desire to hold more of something with near-cash-like liquidity that is not subject to arbitrary devaluation by central banks and governments. Gold is the most obvious example.