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Real Interest Rates, Inflation, and Default

Staff Report 574 | Published December 12, 2018

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Sewon Hur Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
Illenin O. Kondo Senior Research Economist, Institute
Fabrizio Perri Assistant Director and Monetary Advisor
Real Interest Rates, Inflation, and Default


This paper argues that the comovement between inflation and economic activity is an important determinant of real interest rates over time and across countries. First, we show that for advanced economies, periods with more procyclical inflation are associated with lower real rates, but only when there is no risk of default on government debt. Second, we present a model of nominal sovereign debt with domestic risk-averse lenders. With procyclical inflation, nominal bonds pay out more in bad times, making them a good hedge against aggregate risk. In the absence of default risk, procyclical inflation yields lower real rates. However, procyclicality implies that the government needs to make larger (real) payments when the economy deteriorates, which could increase default risk and trigger an increase in real rates. The patterns of real rates predicted by the model are quantitatively consistent with those documented in the data.