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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world appears to be at a debt inflection point where traditional rules no longer apply.

Driving the news: Following a substantial increase of $21 trillion in 2017, debt accumulation rose by just $3.3 trillion in 2018, bringing "the global debt mountain to $243 trillion," the Institute of International Finance reported this week.

Why it matters: While economic orthodoxy holds that high levels of debt lead to higher interest rates, that correlation — like many others — is unraveling in the post-financial-crisis era.

  • "Many commentators might suggest that interest rates are low because central banks have made them low," David Page, senior economist at AXA Investment Managers, tells Axios. "Actually, it's the other way around. Central banks have had to lower rates as much as they have because the natural rate of interest has fallen" as a result of the growing debt.

The big picture: Over the past 10 years the money supply has increased significantly and wealthy businesses have used the wellspring of free cash to buy back shares and acquire rivals to inflate their stock price and reward executives.

But real wage growth has been flat in developed countries and largely capped in developing nations. That has meant a growing number of people have to take on more debt to finance the increasing cost of middle class necessities like a mortgage, medical bills and college tuition.

  • Both the increase in debt and lower interest rates "are symptoms of grander issues such as slowing population growth, an aging population and therefore an easing of economic growth rates," says Lou Brien, rates strategist at DRW Trading.

What it means for the market: The traditional tools of monetary policy by central banks no longer function as they once did.

  • "Central banks have cut interest rates in many places to 0% or negative levels and the economies are not accelerating," Robert Tipp, chief investment strategist at PGIM Fixed Income, tells Axios.
  • "Why are people not borrowing money at zero? Either they don't have anything to do with it or they are overly indebted."

The increased debt also means it takes lower interest rates to slow the economy. With a mountain of debt already accumulated, few can afford the 4% or 5% interest rates of the past, AXA's Page says.

Go deeper

14 hours ago - Health

Food banks feel the strain without holiday volunteers

People wait in line at Food Bank Community Kitchen on Nov. 25 in New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City

America's food banks are sounding the alarm during this unprecedented holiday season.

The big picture: Soup kitchens and charities, usually brimming with holiday volunteers, are getting far less help.

16 hours ago - Health

AstraZeneca CEO: "We need to do an additional study" on COVID vaccine

Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said on Thursday the company is likely to start a new global trial to measure how effective its coronavirus vaccine is, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: Following Phase 3 trials, Oxford and AstraZeneca said their vaccine was 90% effective in people who got a half dose followed by a full dose, and 62% effective in people who got two full doses.

Updated 18 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving.
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions.
  3. World: Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021 — Europeans extend lockdowns.
  4. Economy: The winners and losers of the COVID holiday season.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.