24 April 2020

In the Long Run We Are All Rich: What Negative Interest Rates Mean for Good Policy

The Dutch have records that go back to the time of Martin Luther - 500 years. In that entire time, including the European settlement of continents, 30-year religious war, the end of knighthood, serfs, industrial revolution, the car, telegraph, telephone, TV, computer, modern medicine, introduction of democracy .... interest rates never went negative. Until about 2 years ago.
Now the Dutch, the EU, Japan and even the US (for the US still only briefly and after adjusting for inflation) have all had and / or have negative interest rates.
This is huge.

One of the things I've not seen anyone talk about is how valuable it makes investments.

Imagine that you start with $100 income. Each year that income grows by 5%. You want to price this income stream for the next 50 years.

If you assume that interest rates are +1%, then you discount next year's income by that amount. $100 next year is worth only $99 this year. You discount the amount by 1%. And of course the further out in time, the more you discount that income stream.

If you assume that interest rates are negative 1%, -1%, you actually increase next year's income. $100 next year is worth $101.

What is the price of a 50 year income stream growing at 5% a year when interest rates ....
are 1%? $1,903.
are -1%? $1,014,861,688
It's the difference between two thousand and one billion.

What does this mean? The lower interest rates are, the bigger the reward for investments now. What kind of investments will pay off long term? R&D. Education. Startups. Infrastructure.

As we come out of this incredibly painful downturn, we should invest money as if we were drunk or billionaires. This will do two things. One, it will employ a lot of people right now in construction of infrastructure, R&D, teaching and working in or managing startups. Two, it will generate future income that is worth more than it ever has before.

Negative interest rates signal a wonderful thing. It means that the future has never been more valuable and with capital so cheap, never a better reason to invest in this future. In a twist on Keynes, in the long run, we are all rich.

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