Natural and Neutral Rates of Interest in Theory and Policy Formulation
Interest has a title role in many pre-Keynesian writings as it does in Keynes’s own General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936). Eugen Böhm-Bawerk’s Capital and Interest (1889), Knut Wicksell’s Interest and Prices (1898), and Gustav Cassel’s The Nature and Necessity of Interest (1903) readily come to mind. The essays in F.A. Hayek’s Profits, Interest, and Investment (1939), which both predate and postdate Keynes’s book, focus on the critical role that interest rates play in coordinating production plans with consumption preferences. The General Theory represents a significant departure from classical (and Austrian) thinking but not because of the title-role status of interest. Rather, the departure stems from the fact that, in Keynesian theory, the role played by a market-determined interest rate is a disruptive one.
In contemporary policy discussions, the interest rate occupies center stage if only because the much-watched federal funds rate is the Federal Reserve’s sole surviving policy target. (A quarter-century ago, the Fed lost the ability to target the money supply—or even to identify a distinctly relevant monetary magnitude.) By its very nature an extra-market institution, the Federal Reserve is expected to exert a countervailing force. It is to move against market forces that, presumably, would otherwise be disruptive. In accordance with the Keynesian vision, market interest rates fail to coordinate saving and investment decisions, leaving saving decisions dependent only on incomes and leaving investment decisions dominated by Keynes’s “animal spirits.” Worse, high rates of interest can stem from fetishistic attitudes toward liquidity and a corresponding deficiency of spending.
The federal funds rate, which is the overnight rate on interbank loans, can be lowered or raised in an effort to control interest rates generally. The Federal Reserve lowers the federal funds rate to stimulate spending and keep the economy from sinking into recession; it raises the federal funds rate to retard spending and keep prices and wages from spiraling upward. Given the Keynesian vision and the implied role for central bank policy, the so-called “art of central banking” is to pick the “right” federal funds rate—the rate that wards off both unemployment and inflation.
As theory and policy have developed, the terms “natural rate” and “neutral rate,” though seeming synonyms, provide a contrast between pre-Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking. Although “natural” and “neutral” are sometimes used almost interchangeably, there is an important conceptual distinction in play: the natural rate of interest is a rate that emerges in the market as a result of borrowing and lending activity and governs the allocation of the economy’s resources over time. The neutral rate of interest is a rate that is imposed on the market by wisely chosen monetary policy and is intended to govern the overall level of economic activity at each point in time. Exploring this distinction and its implications can go a long way toward understanding the current state of Federal Reserve policymaking and the difficulties that a central bank creates for the market economy.
The Natural Rate of Interest
So named by Swedish economist Knut Wicksell, the natural rate of interest is the rate that reflects the underlying real factors. In macroeconomic terms as applied to a wholly private economy, it is the rate that governs the allocation of resources between current consumption and investment for the future. By keeping saving and investment in balance, the natural rate guides the economy along a sustainable growth path. That is, governed by the natural rate, unconsumed current output (real saving) is used for augmenting the economy’s productive capacity in ways that are consistent with people’s willingness to postpone consumption.
In the hands of the Austrian economists, the natural rate became the rate that reflects the time preferences of market participants and allocates resources among the temporally defined stages of production. The output of one stage serves as input to the next in this logical and broadly descriptive representation of the economy’s production process. The temporal dimension of the economy’s capital structure is a key macroeconomic variable in Austrian theory.
Time preference is simply a summary term that refers to people’s preferred pattern of consumption over time. A reduction in time preferences means an increased future-orientation. People willingly save more in the present to increase the level of future consumption. Their increased saving lowers the natural rate of interest and releases resources from the final and late stages of production. Simultaneously, the lower natural rate, which translates directly into reduced borrowing costs, makes early stage production activities more profitable. With the reallocation of resources from late to early stages of production, the preferred temporal pattern of consumption gets translated into an accommodating adjustment of the economy’s structure of production.
Movements in the natural rate are also critical to the economy’s performance when changes occur in the availability of resources or in technology. Suppose that a technological breakthrough makes a time-consuming production process much more productive than before. Future consumption—even increased future consumption—can now be secured with less of a sacrifice of current consumption. People’s choices in the marketplace will determine how much of the technological gain will be realized in terms of current consumption (less saving) and how much in terms of future consumption (in which the availability of a new technology more-than-offsets the effect of reduced saving).
A rise in the natural rate during the transition period is portrayed by the Austrian economists as an “interest-rate brake,” a term we owe to Hayek (1933, pp. 94 and 179). The interest-rate brake moderates the rate at which the new technology is implemented and thereby allows for increased current consumption even during the period of implementation. Inventories are drawn down in late stages of production and some resources are reallocated toward less time-consuming projects.
In summary terms, the natural rate is seen as an equilibrating rate. It is the rate that tells the truth about the availability of resources for meeting present and future consumer demands, allowing production plans to be kept in line with the preferred pattern of consumption. By implication, an unnatural, or artificial, rate of interest is a rate that reflects some extra-market influence and that creates a disconnection between intertemporal consumption preferences and intertemporal production plans.
An artificially low rate of interest, which might prevail for some time if the Federal Reserve is targeting a low federal funds rate, translates into the business world as longer planning horizons than are justified by people’s actual willingness to save. The policy-induced mismatch between production and consumption activities creates the illusion of prosperity but sets the stage for an eventual market correction, which takes the form of an economy-wide downturn.
This is the essence of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. The mismatch and resultant boom-bust sequence can occur as a result of two different but related policy goals, which can be described as “stimulating growth” and “accommodating growth.”
The Federal Reserve might lower interest rates (by targeting a low federal funds rate) in circumstances where there has been no change in the underlying market conditions. With unchanged technology, resource availability and consumption preference, business firms are led nonetheless to take advantage of cheap credit. Production activities, particularly in interest-sensitive sectors of the economy, appear more profitable. The economy is steered by low interest rates onto an unsustainable growth path. The cheap-credit policy, though ultimately harmful to the economy, is politically attractive. A seemingly strong economy always makes an attractive backdrop for office holders seeking re-election. If the timing is right, the votes can be harvested before the seeming strength is revealed by the market itself to be an actual weakness.
The phenomenon of stimulatin
Article from Mises Wire