How do interest rates work?

By Evelyn Yong | 16 January 2019

The interest rate is a percentage charged as compensation on the cost of borrowing by a lender to a borrower. A central bank is responsible for formulating a country’s monetary policy and regulation. One of the ways is by controlling the benchmark of interest rate. They can adjust the interest rate to balance the economic status of the nation. But why a simple action on the rate adjusting can make a massive effect on the country economy and even the impact of US’s rate adjustment can swing the world?

US increased their interest rate several times in these few years in preparation for higher inflation, indicating the economy in fast recovery mode and worldwide investors turn their money to the US market to avoid missing the train.

How does the interest rates work?

When the economy is in recession, the central bank will lower the borrowing cost by reducing the interest rates. Hence, consumers are willing to make big purchases, such as houses and cars. For a businessman, this is perfect timing to borrow money in expanding their business and buying more equipment. Therefore, the output and productivity of an economy increased, and the stock market will also show a bullish sign as most industries will be expected to grow.

When the rate is deemed high, the cost of borrowing will become more expensive. Economist suggests that this is a time that the consumer spending will be moderate due to higher borrowing cost, so it is a way to slow down an overheated economy. But it will send a signal that the economy will start to normalise, translate to business will no longer growing exponentially in the foreseeable future. The investor will begin to pull back the money from the market and put it in a bond for a more stable return.

Economy takes place in a cycle. When the economy was in a downturn, economists suggested lowering the interest rate to stimulate a sluggish economy. The interest rate is a catalyst for the economy because it affects people’s decision whether to save more or spend more, which helps to achieve the overall economic situation. Therefore, economists pay a vital role at this moment; they need to observe the economy and identify the timing of raising interest rates.

However, an economic cycle cannot depend only the monetary policy; consumers behaviour is the core contributor to an economy. The subprime crisis is the exact example, the ratio of household debt to disposable personal income in the US rose from 77% in 1990 to 127% by the end of 2007. The situation has shown the market was overheated. Federal Reserve had raised the interest rate from 2.25% to 5.25% in the year 2004 to 2006. But, the situation has failed to calm down and then the bubble burst. In the Dot-com bubble in 2000, Hong Kong’s interest rate had declared up to 13.35% to entice an investor to stay invested in the economy. Sadly, the action deems too late and not enough to stop the crisis happened.

What will happen when the interest rate adjusted?

Capital Flows

When a country announced an adjustment on the interest rate, there is indeed a level of hot money flows occur. Hot money refers to the short-term capital which will flow to countries with higher interest rates. The higher the level of hot money within a state, the more severe the effect will suffer for the economy when hot money flows out. For example, companies and investors are more likely to park their capital into U.S. banks as the Federal Reserve engages in a series of interest rate hikes in 2018. When the foreign investment went out from Malaysia, our market will suffer a drop and value depreciated as low demand.

The value of a currency

An increase in interest rates may lead to a currency appreciation due the economy is on an upward path and Investor tends to invest in good economy. Hence, the currency will appreciate when the money outflow lesser than inflow in the country. However, currency appreciating is not that welcoming by export-domain country. When the currency increased, the exports become less competitive, and purchaser side will incur higher cost. Hence, the purchaser may try to change their supplier from another lower currency country to get cheaper cost.

Inflation rate.

An adjustment in interest rate can indirectly affect the inflation rate. As a higher interest rate can slow down economic spending growth to take some of the edges off of rising inflation. Vice versa, when the interest rates in a low period, more people tend to spend more and aggregate demand increased. Hence, causing the economy grows, follow with the increase of inflation.

Housing Industry

Adjustment in interest rates will have significant impact on property buying. Due to the house mortgage loan is a long term loan, a small increase in the interest rate can result in a substantial amount differing in total payment.


There is no specific answer whether it is good or bad in adjusting interest rate as there is no one size fits all. However, interest rate adjusting is still significant and is a MUST-do action to approach a normal economic cycle. Balancing is essential to achieve long-term sustainability. As a consumer, we need to control our spending in every phase; as an investor, we must adjust our portfolio in every period to maximise our profit and minimise our loss.

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