Liquidity preference theory

Liquidity preference theory is a theory that explains the term structure of interest rates. The theory asserts that liquidity premiums exist to compensate investors for the added interest rate risk they face when lending long term and that these premiums increase with maturity. Thus, given an expectation of unchanging short-term spot rates, liquidity preference theory predicts an upward-sloping yield curve. The forward rate provides an estimate of the expected spot rate that is biased upward by the amount of the liquidity premium, which invalidates the unbiased expectations theory.

Compare to the unbiased expectations theory which leaves no room for risk aversion, liquidity preference theory attempts to account for it.

For example, the US Treasury offers bonds that mature in 30 years. However, the majority of investors have an investment horizon that is shorter than 30 years. For investors to hold these bonds, they would demand a higher return for taking the risk that the yield curve changes and that they must sell the bond prior to maturity at an uncertain price. That incrementally higher return is the liquidity premium. Note that this premium is not to be confused with a yield premium for the lack of liquidity that thinly traded bonds may bear. Rather, it is a premium applying to all long-term bonds, including those with deep markets.

Liquidity preference theory fails to offer a complete explanation of the term structure. Rather, it simply argues for the existence of liquidity premiums. For example, a downward-sloping yield curve could still be consistent with the existence of liquidity premiums if one of the factors underlying the shape of the curve is an expectation of deflation (i.e., a negative rate of inflation due to monetary or fiscal policy actions). Expectations of sharply declining spot rates may also result in a downward-sloping yield curve if the expected decline in interest rates is severe enough to offset the effect of the liquidity premiums.

In summary, liquidity preference theory claims that lenders require a liquidity premium as an incentive to lend long term. Thus, forward rates derived from the current yield curve provide an upwardly biased estimate of expected future spot rates. Although downward-sloping or hump-shaped yield curves may sometimes occur, the existence of liquidity premiums implies that the yield curve will typically be upward sloping.

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