from the keep-it-under-the-mattress dept.
Matthew Yglesias writes at Vox that something really weird that economists thought was impossible is happening now in Europe where interest rates have gone negative on a range of debt — mostly government bonds from countries like Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany but also corporate bonds from Nestlé and, briefly, Shell. As in you give the owner of a Nestlé bond 100 euros, and four years later Nestlé gives you back less than that. "In the most literal sense, negative interest rates are a simple case of supply and demand. A bond is a kind of tradable loan," says Yglesias. "If there isn't much demand for buying the bonds, the interest rate has to go up to make customers more willing to buy. If there's a lot of demand, the interest rate will fall."
But why would you want to buy a negative interest rate loan? The question itself seems absurd – the very idea that anyone should have to pay someone to keep their money safe rather than demand an interest payment for the use of their money is counter-intuitive. But according to Yglesias, very rich people and big companies need to do something with their money and most European banks only guarantee 100,000 euros.Plowing the money into negative-yielding government bonds can appeal to banks when the alternative is to pay even more to store cash on deposit. J.P. Morgan calculates there is currently 220 billion euros of bank reserves subject to negative interest rates, which looks set to grow exponentially because of the European Central Bank’s forthcoming colossal bond-buying program. "It may be the case that if governments push the negative interest rates thing too far the entire economy would become a cash based system," says Merryn Somerset Webb. "But that might take a while to get to."
Some time ago we discussed negative interest rates here on Soylent News. At that time there was some discussion of deflation and why it is such a mixed bag for consumers, companies, and countries.
The Economist has an article that explains deflation rather succinctly.
It turns out that deflation is bad because we are all so burdened with Debt. Not only personal debt, but corporate debt, and national debts. You end up paying debts with money that is more and more dear as time goes on.
Deflation poses several risks, some well-understood, one not. One familiar danger is that consumers will put off spending in the expectation that things will get even cheaper, further muting demand. Likewise, if prices fall across an economy but wages do not, then firms’ margins will be squeezed and employment will stagnate or decline. (Neither of these dangers is yet visible; indeed, America and Britain are seeing strong employment growth.) A third, well-known risk is debt deflation: debts become more onerous because the amount that is owed does not fall, even as earnings do. This is a big worry in the euro zone, where many banks are already stuffed with dud loans.
But in addition, all tools of Monetary Policy become useless.
The least-understood danger is also the most serious, because it is already here. Deflation makes it harder to loosen monetary policy. All of which means that policymakers risk having precious little room for manoeuvre when the next recession hits.
While some have been eager to see monetary policy reigned in, we did see the effects of this during the height of the recent depression, (which some claim we are still suffering from).
The US Federal Reserve had run out points it could cut when lending money to large banks. There were periods in 2010 where the Fed was lending money to banks at Zero Interest Rate. The link explains a number of serious risks with this policy.