Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How lower Interest Rate create Malinvestments?

Hayek argues about lose monetary policy resulting in malinvestments. But it is important to know how.In essence, there are three components to the argument.

First, interest rate represent the hurdle or minimum threshold return a business must produce. The return on capital is measure of the strength of business model and execution skill of the firm. The higher the return more capable the firm, stronger its business model, better its execution. (Note: does not indicate causality but simply co-existence).

Second, credit flows to those with history. Bankers or creditors in general, prefer to lend to large firms because of reputation, size and volume of credit that can quickly be deployed. In a low interest rate environment, bankers will prefer to loan a project of a large firm with ROCE of 5% rather than lend to 30 small firms with ROCE of 15%. This behaviour stifles the flow of credit to vibrant smaller enterprises, thus restricting new innovations. Because of this low-cost finance availability, it is possible that large corporates create unjustified barriers to entry (for example, dealer credit) to prevent new entrants. Further, it also creates anemic large projects that not only falter at the first sign of trouble, but also impose amplified collateral damage to the banking and credit system as a whole.

Based on my experience, the investment relevance - interest rate curve is a bell-shaped curve. If interest rates are too low then they result in malinvestments. If they are too high they strangle the economy. In between is a sweet spot policy makers should aim for.

Third, interest rate regime sets the benchmark for risk. Every investor, particularly those like mutual funds or pension funds, has a minimum expected return. This return is adjusted in keeping with planned expenses, payout of costs already incurred, adjustment for inflation etc. This minimum expected return is not a fancy number we expect to see, but rather a minimum threshold to ensure you cover your costs.

To hit this minimum return, investors now need to take more risks. In other words, we have modified the risk calibration. Each modification creates a portfolio churn, sometimes increasing the risk within the portfolio, sometimes reducing the risks as signaled by the interest rate regime changes. This is a form of mal-investment.

However, lower interest rates do help longer gestation vibrant projects. Infrastructure (or rather appropriate infrastructure) comes under this classification. Thus, a low interest rate environment can be used to create a longer term strategic advantage. Clearly, such process must involve stricter policy oversight and control.