The concept of negative interest rates appears anathema to conventional economic thinking, and it is rarely discussed in economic literature. However, this changed when central banks began cutting their leading interest rates below zero. First in Sweden in 2009 and then in Switzerland, Denmark, the eurozone and Japan. Negative rates became a part of the monetary tool kit. Sub-zero rates soon spooked bond markets as well. For a brief moment in 2019, as US rates rose and even more euro-denominated bonds began to see some positive yields, markets expected a return to normalcy, that is, to positive rates. However, the sudden COVID-19 pandemic ended this trend and even the US, the UK and Singapore are on the brink of joining the negative yield club.
This article analyses negative rates from a European and mainly German perspective and focusses on three central aspects:
1) stiff headwinds for the international profile of the euro,
2) the impact on banks, particularly those with a strong deposit base, and
3) the interaction of rates and government debt.
This article also contrasts the views of central banks and their critics, which range from monetary economists warning of low-interest rate’s potential contractionary effects to followers of Modern Monetary Theory arguing that public debt volume and interest rates are mostly irrelevant.
Meanwhile, negative interest rates have become more common as the traditional arsenals of monetary policy have become depleted. However, the side-effects are considerable and deserve consideration.
Negative interest rates. The new normal?
To lend money and from the outset expect less in return is counterintuitive to the notion of money as a store of value. It also conflicts with the economic theory that foregoing consumption now to save for a later date deserves a reward, especially if you lend this savings instead, taking a risk. This thinking is not easy to align with negative rates. Hence negative rates send market participants a clear signal of an extreme economic scenario, a stressor on the system. Not surprisingly, except for some time from 1972 to 1979, when Switzerland tried to discourage foreigners from holding CHF deposits and lifting the Swiss Franc, interest rates were positive in all markets.
Times changed for good in July 2009, when the Swedish Central Bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, cut its main repurchase rate to 0.25 per cent, depressing the actual overnight deposit rate for the banks to minus 0.25 per cent. For the first time in July 2012, Denmark’s Central Bank directly fixed its key interest rate below zero. The European Central Bank (ECB) followed suit in June 2014, the Swiss National Bank in January 2015 and Nippon Ginkō – the Bank of Japan – in January 2016. The ECB cut rates four more times over the following years, reaching minus 0.50 per cent in September 2019. Sveriges Riksbank cut the repurchase rate itself below zero to minus 0.10 per cent in February 2015 and to minus 0.50 per cent a year later but reversed it to zero in December 2019.
Negative rates have spread to the bond market as well. By August 2019, USD 16.8 trillion of outstanding bonds carried a negative yield, according to Bloomberg. In December 2019, the volume decreased to USD 11.2 trillion. Governments and international organizations, as well as highly-rated banks and corporates from more than 30 countries across the globe from Japan to Germany, from the US to Singapore could raise money and essentially be paid for the issuance. The biggest countries to do so being Japan with USD 4.8 trillion, France and Germany with USD 1.6 trillion, Spain with USD 467.5 billion and international organizations with 428.9 billion.
Based on Sweden’s example and the reduction in outstanding sub-zero bonds from August to December 2019, one could have concluded that negative interest rates were gradually retreating. However, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped this trend in its tracks. It is safe to say that negative rates have become a fixture in the monetary toolbox and may even become the new normal provided inflation remains subdued – a provision that deserves debate. As the pandemic is both a demand and supply shock, we will see deflationary and inflationary forces at work at unprecedented levels. What we know for sure is that the vast recovery programs rely on these low or sub-zero rates. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as of May 2020, these already amount to USD 9.0 trillion. The OECD estimates that developed countries will raise at least USD 17 trillion of new public debt.
Considering this fiscal expansion, the US, the UK and Singapore are on the brink of joining the negative yield club. Interest rate futures markets in the US sent a remarkable signal during the first week of May 2020, as they appeared to price in expectations that the Fed’s benchmark federal-funds rate would fall below zero by year-end. Donald Trump applauded via Twitter, “As long as other countries are receiving the benefits of Negative Rates, the USA should also accept the ‘gift’. Big numbers!” On 20 May 2020, the UK government sold three-year gilts at a negative rate of minus 0.003 per cent for the first time. A day later, the one-month swap offer rate in Singapore fell below zero.
A multi-pronged approach for economic growth and combatting deflation
Furthermore, the euro zone’s inflationary targets remain elusive, coming close but always below the ECB’s 2.0 per cent target. While this could be considered a success to the primary mandate of price stability, deflation is a major concern.
Therefore, the ECB pursued an “innovative, multi-pronged approach in the design of its policy stance.” The current policy mix includes four elements:
1) negative interest rate policy by fixing the deposit facility rate below zero,
2) an asset purchase program, specifically concerning eurozone government bonds,
3) support of bank lending through targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTROs), and
4) forward guidance on the path of policy instruments.
As a result, the European Central Bank received broad praise for its contribution to eurozone stability following the financial crisis. Over the past six years, unemployment decreased as well as the risk of a deflationary spiral.
Nevertheless, critics focus on the harmful side-effects of negative interest rates. Just as any medicine carries certain risks and side-effects, it is a matter of careful consideration whether the positive impact outweighs potential negatives, especially long-term. Current research demonstrates that quite a few areas are affected by negative rates.
Side-effects on the domestic economy and international trade
Traditionally, central banks in industrialized countries cut rates by around 4% in response to recessions. With rates already low or negative, possible changes will almost certainly be too small to substantially alter the profit rationale for households or corporates creating extra demand via credit. What low or even negative rates certainly do is relieve pressure to adjust and adapt, as the cost of debt remains manageable for most companies. Therefore, critics blame a “zombification” of the economy, citing the lack of dynamic in the Japanese economy as proof, by keeping weak companies afloat.
Sweden, an early advocate, became more sceptical on the balance of its impacts. At the December 2019 monetary policy meeting, Deputy Governor Henry Ohlsson remarked: “the minus world has not had a full impact on households […] The impact of monetary policy has been less than in the plus world.”
The so-called “theory of reversal interest rates” goes even further. According to Princeton University’s Markus Brunnermeier and Yann Koby, a specific interest rate level – which could even be above zero – exists at which the effects of accommodative monetary policy reverse and become contractionary for lending. The key determinants are the banks’ long-term fixed-income holdings, their capitalization, the tightness of capital constraints and the deposit supply. “A monetary policy rate decrease below the reversal interest rate depresses rather than stimulates the economy.”