Policy brief

Low interest rates in Europe and the US: one trend, two stories

Interest rates have been on a long-term decline, associated with declining productivity growth.

Publishing date
10 March 2021

We thank Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud for excellent research assistance and Faÿçal Hafied for drawing our attention to ESOPs. We are grateful to seminar participants at Bruegel for comments and suggestions. This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 822390.

In both Europe and the United States, interest rates have been declining for more than fifteen years. For much of this period, real interest rates have been negative and they are expected to remain negative for at least another decade. The literature associates this decline in interest rates with a similarly protracted decline in productivity. But the decline in productivity appears paradoxical given major technological advances.

The decline in the price of capital is underpinned by the factors that have caused a decline in demand for capital, as well as a relative increase in its supply. On the supply side, aging and an increase in overall macroeconomic risk since the financial crisis have both led to increased savings. On the demand side, the increase in the importance of intangible capital in production has reduced the demand for physical capital. 

Nevertheless, for the US, the literature has identified the increase in market concentration as the biggest factor responsible for the reduction in the overall demand for capital. Digital innovation has led to the creation of champion firms that have captured big market shares and have been able to prevent others from entering not only the US market, but markets globally. This has dampened investment. 

Europe is affected by US digital dominance, but other factors, including aging and increased risk, are more prominent in sustaining the downward pressure on interest rates. In particular, the lack of risk capital, in the context of capital markets, contributes to this downward pressure in the EU. As the knowledge economy relies increasingly on intangible capital, a bank-based system that requires collateral is not well suited to finance investments. A lack of suitable finance will remain an important factor in the downward pressure on interest rates.

The structural factors behind the downward pressure on interest rates imply that macroeconomic policy will have a reduced role in managing aggregate demand. Monetary policy in the euro area will be more about preventing financial fragmentation and less about stimulating demand. Equally, fiscal policy will have more of a supporting rather than stimulating role.

Tackling the structural decline in market dynamism and therefore in real rates will require structural policies to reduce market power globally and ensure the creation of capital markets in the EU. 

Recommended Citation

Demertzis, M. and N. Viegi (2021) ‘Low interest rates in Europe and the US: one trend, two stories’, Policy Contribution 07/2021, Bruegel

About the authors

  • Maria Demertzis

    Maria Demertzis is a Senior fellow at Bruegel and part-time Professor of Economic Policy at the Florence School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute. She was Bruegel’s Deputy Director until December 2022. She has previously worked at the European Commission and the research department of the Dutch Central Bank. She has also held academic positions at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in the USA and the University of Strathclyde in the UK, from where she holds a PhD in economics. She has published extensively in international academic journals and contributed regular policy inputs to both the European Commission's and the Dutch Central Bank's policy outlets. She contributes regularly to national and international press and has regular column that appears twice a month in various EU newspapers and on Bruegel’s opinion page.

  • Nicola Viegi

    He is the South African Reserve Bank Professor of Monetary Economics - University of Pretoria, SA since 2010. He has served in various universities like University of Strathclyde as Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde as Lecturer in Economics, University of Kwazulu-Natal as Senior Lecturer in Economics and University of Cape Town as Associate Professor in Economics. He has been Visiting Lecturer in ESC Toulouse, Lecturer in Business Economics (1999-2002), University of Malta, Lecturer in International Finance (1999-2002) and De Nederlandesche Bank, Amsterdam (2000-present).

    His research areas are Monetary economics, economic policy theory, monetary fiscal policy interdependence, political economy of monetary institutions, economic policy under uncertainty assets prices and monetary policy, regional integration in Africa, political economy of government debt, the economics of colonisation and decolonisation, macromodelling for emerging countries, economic growth and institutions.

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