Friday, August 13, 2010

Why won't interest rates come down?

FOR years I have listened to many people discuss why the banks won't reduce interest rates, even going as far as saying how cruel the banks are, and even referring to them as extortionists. This sort of argument has received traction from not only the man in the street but even supposedly intelligent persons who should better understand what determines interest rates.

More recently the Government, through the Minister of Finance, has been pursuing policies to create a more facilitative environment to encourage the reduction of interest rates generally. After all, talk alone was never going to do the trick, as the banks were faced with a choice of (1) lending (at a risk) to the private sector -- in the face of high crime, decreasing real income, relatively high inflation, etc; or (2) placing money on government paper, at a relatively high return (with little risk). The choice for any prudent person would have been obvious.

Breaking the cycle
So the only way to have broken that cycle was to effectively reduce the return on government paper, which could only have been done by (1) in the short term, restructuring government debt; (2) in the medium term, sustaining that restructured debt by focusing on prudent fiscal management; and (3) in the long term, causing economic development to happen. The first one was easiest to do -- and was necessary although many could not see it at the time; the second is easy in the short run, but more challenging to sustain; and of course, the third is always going to be very challenging. In order to succeed in all three, a set of economic and social policies would have to be put in place or else we would see short-term gains followed by more severe pain. But this is not the topic being discussed so I will move on.

Shaw and his team have been doing all that they can in the drive for lower interest rates. All they can realistically do is create the environment for reduced interest rates, but can do no more besides plead with the banks to reduce rates at a pace they would like to see. Well, there is one more thing they can do, which is to encourage greater competition in the lending market. This has its own inherent risks, but my own belief is that a well managed and thought-out strategy would have the desired effects while reducing the inherent risks.

Interest rate determinants
Back to the question at hand, though — why won't interest rates come down? The truth is that we have started to see interest rates coming down; however, it will not be at the pace we would like for a number of reasons:

1. The first is that our lending market is not competitive enough, and I believe that this is a policy that government must pursue: (a) to enable the consumer to get the best price for money and (b) to enable further development of the capital market. This must, however, be carefully managed and implemented;

2. Interest rates are the price of money, and are determined by demand and supply. Even though rates offered on government instruments have come down, there is still a relatively high demand for funds by the government. The solution to this is to either increase the supply of money or reduce the demand for money by government. The first has other risks associated with it and the latter takes time;

3. Because of the reduction in real and disposable incomes, and the hardships being faced by many businesses, the risk associated with lending has increased. Therefore, even though people may be demanding money, the bank needs to assess the risk to ensure they can be paid back over the life of the loan. So it is a chicken and egg situation, in that while the loans are needed to jump-start the economy, the fact is that the risk is high because income has declined. One of the ways to deal with this is for equity to be injected initially by government, for example, in terms of direct equity stake or interest subsidies. One other major determinant of risk is predictability about government policies and crime;

4. Many people also have sound ideas but do not have the proper due diligence evidence, for example, projections and a business plan. Banks assess projects based on independent assessments. So a business plan done by a well-known and independent accountant, for example, carries less risk than one done by a connected party;

5. Interest rates are determined also by the relative value of currencies. So to see lower interest rates we might have to see a stronger Jamaican dollar versus the US dollar, all other things being equal, but this also depends on the balance of payments situation, as currency values can only consistently improve if productivity and the trade balance improve. If these factors get relatively worse then it means the currency will depreciate and the way to maintain stability may be to increase interest rates;

6. Within the financial institutions themselves, I do not believe that they have yet made the skills set transition. Many of the ads that come out still focus on non-productive loans -- for example, it seems a bit futile to me to be promoting motor car loans when that market is destined to decline. Why swim against the tide? [There is one financial institution that has made a transition, and I think now is the time to buy their shares]. Another indicator to me is that, unlike in the US, there is not a great emphasis on the skills set to be able to analyse and predict what will happen in the economy. In the US, for example, banks invest a lot in the resources that can predict what will be the likely out turn in the economy. If you can reasonably predict economic outturn then you can prepare your company for the future. I am aware of some companies that have done that, but I don't see the public display of it by the local banks.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it illustrates the factors that go into determining interest rate levels. What this shows, though, is that there is very little that the Government can do besides create an environment to encourage interest rate reduction. The Bank of Jamaica and the Ministry of Finance could reduce interest rates to zero if they wanted to; the fact is that this does not necessarily translate into lower commercial lending rates. This was clearly demonstrated in the US, where the Federal Reserve decreased interest rates to near zero, but even then yields and commercial rates were still relatively high.

I believe that from the fiscal management point of view that environment is already emerging from the policies being implemented. And I say 'emerging', as the key to the fiscal management programme is going to be sustainability, and government will have to demand less money, even at lower rates. The next most effective government policy is the encouragement of greater competition in the market. After all, it is this sort of effect that has caused banks to be reducing interest rates, not because they care about their customers. Default on your loan and you will see how far that "care" takes you. And there is nothing wrong with that. The private sector should be motivated by profit, not benevolence.

So when the question comes up again, why won't interest rates come down? The answer must be that it is because there are many determinants to interest rate levels, and that it is really nothing more than the price of money. So anyone who believes that the price of money is too high, then maybe they would not be averse to reducing the price on their own goods, as, given the reduction in disposable income, the price of goods has also become too high.

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