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How Low Can Interest Rates Go?

May 6, 2020

How Low Can Interest Rates Go?

Super-low, zero, negative … and COVID-19

When we talk about life, there is a very good chance that there will be a bright line differentiating how things were and how things are: pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. That line represents the moment when our everyday actions—from grocery shopping to socializing to leasing office space—changed.

The same may hold true for the Federal Reserve. Formulas and data that worked a year ago, or even during the Great Recession, haven’t had a chance to take hold because the economy remains in the grip of COVID-19. While government officials and scientists debate the timeline for re-opening the economy, millions of Americans and investors are waiting and wondering about what happens next—and short- and long-term answers still seem up in the air.

What a difference a few months can make

It wasn’t all that long ago—December 2019, to be exact—when the Federal Reserve, bolstered by a low unemployment rate, an expanding economy, and a healthy and appropriate inflation rate, said that interest rates would remain steady throughout 2020. Then, COVID-19 happened.

On January 21, 2020, the CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 on U.S. soil. By March 3, the Fed announced its first action, slashing interest rates to help protect an economy already slowing down as a result of the spreading crisis—a dramatic increase in new diagnoses, a growing death toll, and rampant unemployment as preventative lockdown and quarantine measures escalated.

Twelve days later, with an economy slowing to a snail’s pace, the Fed announced an additional cut, bringing interest rates to near-zero—edging the Fed closer to exhausting its ammunition to stimulate the economy during a recession.

Are super-low interest rates a good thing?

Before COVID-19, many economists debated the Fed’s use of super-low interest rates to keep the economic expansion on track in 2019. Essentially, by making money more affordable to borrow, it acts as an incentive for people to get money out of bank accounts and into the economy.

Nevertheless, critics worried that the low interest rates could create a false sense of investment security by encouraging borrowers to take dangerous risks, creating asset bubbles that could eventually burst, and supporting zombie companies that are actually slowing growth. In other words, some argue that the Feds’ best preventative-efforts may have merely been delaying an inevitable recession.

While the Fed’s response to COVID-19 is also meant to ease the economic pain, it’s largely unable to achieve the result—getting money out of savings accounts and into the economy—because, at the moment, there isn’t much of an economy. As a result, consumers are holding onto their cash for as long as possible as they look at mounting debt and a questionable timeline on when the country may re-open for business.

In all likelihood, it will be a rolling timeline as regions experience different peak times and transmission rates. All phased re-openings will depend on the course of COVID-19, not just the decisions of policymakers.

What happens with zero or negative interest rates?

When the Fed announced its steady interest rate course in December 2019, central banks in Europe and Japan were already trying zero and even negative interest rates. At the time, that meant investors were looking at the United States as a strong option for their own money. COVID-19, however, changed the investment game, leaving many to wonder if the U.S. will follow its global counterparts. While the Fed has given no indication it will take that path yet, it’s not a bad idea to understand how it would look.

Generally speaking, we all know the banking equation. The higher the interest rate, the more you pay to borrow money—from home loans to business loans to car loans. At the same time, that rate also determines how much money consumers earn on savings accounts.

If—if—the Fed should initiate a zero or negative interest rate course, banks would see their profit margins pinched. While they would undoubtedly respond with higher fees, many analysts project that savers and those on fixed incomes would have an increasingly difficult time making ends meet because they won’t be able to get a return on their money. The lower the interest rate dips below zero, the more far-reaching the implications on bond and Treasury yields and the stock market, as well as potential runs on banks and mutual funds.

The bottom line for investors

Since COVID-19 arrived in the US, Morris Southeast Group has stressed three key points. The first is that we are all in this together. It may seem like a cliché by now, but it’s true. Many of our fortunes—economic and health-related—rise and fall together. And where commercial real estate is concerned, tenants and owners must work together to weather the crisis.

The second is that the pandemic is a very fluid situation. In many ways, it’s forcing responses and procedures to strike a balance between sensible policies and humanitarian needs. No one knows exactly what steps the Fed will take next, but it’s clear that it is doing everything in its power to prevent the U.S. from entering negative interest rate territory.

This brings us to our third key point, and that is to be proactive. To that end, investors should create a contingency plan for their investments and money should the U.S. economy enter into zero to negative interest rates—and carefully pay attention to market and economic policies. To learn more about what Morris Southeast Group can do for you now and in the future, call us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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