Is the long-term interest rate a policy victim, a policy variable or a policy lodestar?

BIS Working Papers No 367
December 2011


Few financial variables are more fundamental than the "risk free" real long-term interest rate because it prices the terms of exchange over time. During the past 15 years, it has dropped from a range of 4 to 5% to a range of 0 to 2%. By late 2011, cyclical factors had driven it close to zero. This paper explores why. Possible persistent factors are: the investment of the large savings generated by developing Asia in highly-rated bonds; accounting and valuation rules for institutional investment; and financial sector regulation. The consequences could be far-reaching: cheaper leverage; less pressure to correct fiscal deficits; larger interest rate exposures in the financial industry; and a more cyclical bond market. During the financial crisis, central banks in the advanced countries have made the long-term interest rate a policy variable as Keynes had always advocated. This policy focus will draw more attention to the macroeconomic and financial consequences of government debt management policies. Coordination between central bank balance sheet policies and government debt management is essential. With government debt very high for years to come, bond market volatility could confront central banks with unenviable choices.

JEL Classification: E12, E43, E58, G18, H63

Keywords: Long-term interest rate, bond market, government debt management, financial regulation, central banks