Minor point on interest rates

I am currently writing a post that uses cluster analytical techniques to identify different economic structures at the county level in Texas, which I hope to complete soon. The point is to demonstrate the utility of a common but underutilized tool in economic-geography and also to continue my case study on the economic success story of Texas.

In the meantime, I just wanted to make a point about low interest rates. Quite frequently in the business press, one will stumble across a phrase like “in today’s low interest rate environment…” and it is typically quickly followed by a reference to our “accommodative” or “activist” Federal Reserve. Many would have us believe that low interest rates are somehow “unnatural,” which is an attractive idea because interest rates are in fact set by a committee, for all intents and purposes. The article that set me off today in a waiting room referred to the growth of fracking, and the whole thing was prefaced by the boilerplate statement about low interest rates.

But the United States is a country full of risk-hungry women and men. Do commentators truly expect us to believe that if interest rates were, say, five percent instead of near zero, high-risk endeavors and investments would not be undertaken? The causal effect of interest rates, I think, are totally overblown with respect to operational decisions of businesses and entrepreneurs to pursue high-risk projects or investors to purchase high-yielding securities whose underlying assets are less stable and cash flows less predictable. The while thing sounds like a lazy cop out.

People don’t make investment decisions exclusively on the basis of the Fed’s monetary policy. It is certainly one factor, but not the only one and an over-emphasized one at that. Entrepreneurs and corporate decision-makers don’t go into hibernation when interest rates rise or rev up when they drop. They make their decisions after careful consideration of risk, expected return, current capabilities, and a host of market factors.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to know who (which entities/organizations, what sort of investors) make high-risk investments? And where those investments are located? Using what kind of evaluative technologies? What sort of collateral they put up, how they finance their investments? These are processes that depend on the structure of markets and organizations, and these in turn do not flow from the Fed’s interest rate dicta.


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