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Are low rates becoming the bane of central bankers?

Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney speaks during the Canadian Council of Chief Executives conference in Ottawa on September 24, 2012.


Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, Ben Bernanke shares your frustration.

Mr. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, on Thursday expressed a hint of consternation over the slow recovery of the U.S. housing market. It seems he can't help but wonder if overly cautious lenders now are the biggest problem.

"Certainly, some tightening of credit standards was an appropriate response to the lax lending conditions that prevailed in the years leading up to the peak in house prices," Mr. Bernanke said in a speech in Atlanta. "However, it seems likely at this point that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and that overly tight lending standards may now be preventing creditworthy borrowers from buying homes, thereby slowing the revival in housing and impeding the economic recovery."

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Mr. Bernanke's lament has echo of Mr. Carney's "dead money" dirge over corporate Canada's apparent preference for hoarding cash at low interest rates rather than investing that money, or using it to hire people.

The U.S. and Canadian central bank chiefs have reason to be frustrated: their carefully studied policies aren't working the way they are supposed to.

Teodora Paligorova and Jesus A. Sierra Jimenez, economists at the Bank of Canada, published a paper Thursday in the Bank of Canada Review that suggests the longer interest rates stay low, the more likely it is that banks will make riskier loans. "Studies find that the terms of loans to risky borrowers become less stringent in periods of low interest rates," they write. "This risk-taking channel may amplify the effects of traditional transmission mechanisms, resulting in the creation of excessive credit."

In the U.S., the benchmark interest rate has been at zero since the end of the 2008, and the Fed currently is engaged in its third round of quantitative easing, a policy that sees the central bank create money to buy financial assets. In Canada, the central bank has left its overnight target at the ultra-low 1 per cent for more than two years.

Those policies clearly have played an important role in arresting the financial crisis. Canada has fully recovered from its recession, and the U.S. economy is growing steadily. But both central banks charitably describe growth in their countries as moderate. Aside from Canada's mortgage market, where banks are free to issue debt that's backed by the government, there is no little reason to worry about "excessive" credit.

Policy makers are learning the limits of low interest rates in an economy that is suffering a nasty hangover. Few rational people go to the bar when they feel wretched from the night before, not even when it is Happy Hour. Economies appear to function the same way.

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About the Author
Senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation

Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.Previously, he was Report on Business's correspondent in Washington. He has covered finance and economics for a decade, mostly as a reporter with Bloomberg News in Ottawa and Washington. A native of New Brunswick's Upper St. More


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