Are Higher Interest Rates the End of the World?

by John Rubino,

It’s amazing what you can get used to if it just goes on long enough. Everyone with a family has experienced this personally, but it’s also true at the societal level, where one decade’s impossibility becomes the next’s normal. Not so long ago, for instance, interest rates signified the amount by which a bank CD or bond would increase your wealth each year. But today’s rates are so low that most fixed income instruments are now functionally the same as a checking account, simply a place to park your spare cash until you need it – not an investment that will grow with time. Zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) has created a depressing, in some cases impoverishing “new normal” for savers and retirees.

But the opposite is true for governments, for whom borrowing used to lead to higher interest expense, which in turn widened budget deficits. That’s no longer the case. In recent years, rolling over existing paper as rates have fallen has actually lowered the interest expense of investment-grade countries. Consider the following two charts. The first shows US government debt nearly tripling since 2000. The second shows how much its interest expense has risen: Not at all.

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