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COLUMN-Central banks' return to zero rates likely a one-way ticket: Mike Dolan

Mike Dolan

Dolan@ (The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON, March 13 (Reuters) - Central bank interest rates are being cut once again to ward off a global financial shock, and the experience of the past 30 years suggests there's little chance rates will revert back up once the crisis passes.

As the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, energy prices implode on a Saudi-Russia price war and global stock markets plummet, G7 central banks are easing again to calm investors. That means the attempt by central banks at normalization of interest rates since the 2008 financial crisis has effectively failed. A spate of rate cuts in recent days shows a likely return to ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) across all G7 economies is now on the cards.

The scenarios under which key rates will be lifted again when the virus passes look increasingly remote.

JPMorgan reckons that what it only recently saw as a "risk scenario" of the United States joining Europe and Japan in the zero bond-yield club was now "much closer to reality." Jan Loeys, a strategist at the bank, says the reasons Japanese and German government bond yields never recovered from their respective declines below 1% in 2012 and 2014 despite expanding economies include "no inflation; low productivity growth; little fiscal expansion; and higher savings."

"With the potential exception of fiscal policy, the other three conditions are in place in the United States now, and are thus likely to keep U.S. yields very low for some time," Loeys says. He thinks that in the long-term this should force investors to overweight equity: "80/20 makes more sense than 60/40.

CHANGING CAPITALISM

Bond markets, which reflect cost of money and inflation risk, support Loeys view. Ten-year Treasury yields plunged below 1% for the first time last week. Of the G7, only Italy now has a 10-year government borrowing rate above 1%, and three - Japan, Germany and France - are sub-zero. Only Italy has a 30-year rate above 2%.

Low rates have punished savers and pushed investors to take risks, while failing to drive growth and lift inflation in places like Japan and Europe. Anthony Rayner at British fund manager Premier Miton says policymakers insistence on cosseting markets to prevent high borrowing rates have altered capitalism beyond recognition.

"Financial markets are not the provider of capital or a judge of economic and corporate health that they once were: markets are managed by policy makers," Rayner says.

Still, much is not known about the coronavirus, and some economists have said its impact could be temporary, making a case for policy support in the near term. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week he was confident that a year from now the U.S. economy will be in very good shape, pointing to an emergency rate cut by the Fed and other policy measures the government was considering.

MEGA TREND

The secular decline in borrowing rates is the most durable mega-trend of the past 30 years. Inflation expectations have ebbed in ageing Western societies that are fueling a so-called "savings glut," as they near retirement and wage growth remains low.

In recent years, tightening cycles have been cut short before rates could scale previous highs. At 2.5% in this cycle, Fed rates peaked in 2018 at less than half the pre-financial crash highs of 5.25%. That itself was a percentage point below the peak of 2000 - and almost half the now almost-unimaginable rates close to 10% in 1990.

For Britain, the flatlining has been more dramatic still, as the Bank of England only managed to get official rates as high as 0.75% in this cycle.

As short and long-term borrowing rates wend their way ever lower, debt has piled up worldwide, compounding the sensitivity of financial markets, business and households to any re-tightening of monetary policy even after serial crises and shocks subside. That will keep the pressure on rates.

"To a large extent, financial markets now rule the economy more than the economy rules them," reckons Didier Saint-George at French asset manager Carmignac.

(Twitter: zreutersMikeD Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Edward Tobin)

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