To many of us, it’s been obvious for a long time now that ultra-low interest rates are doing more harm than good, driving up house prices and mortgage debt for no particular benefit to consumption and business investment. Quite the reverse, in fact.
Perversely, unconventional monetary policy may even be damaging the very things it’s meant to boost. Low interest rates have made it virtually impossible to find a half way decent – and safe – rate of return, which in turn makes people save more, rather than spend more, if they want to enjoy a respectable income in retirement. Too many are choosing to do it through the housing market, creating social ills on top of the economic ones.
The destructive effects of low rates are at their most obvious in Britain’s once mighty final salary pensions sector. By increasing the funding costs of future liabilities, ultra low rates have caused pension fund deficits to spiral out of control. In response, the pensions regulator has forced corporate sponsors to dig deep to cover the difference, eating into earnings, restricting dividends, and crimping otherwise gainful investment in the business.
Just ask Philip Bowman, former chief executive of Smiths Group.
He could barely move without consulting his pension fund trustees first. If he thought there was any merit in breaking up this oddly diversified engineering conglomerate, he would not have been able to; pensioners, it seems, come before shareholder value and commercial gain. It is much the same in any business with a big legacy pension fund. Executives find themselves working primarily not for investors, but for members of the pension scheme.