Negative Interest Rates

Leave a comment

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the policy of central banks to forcibly push down interest rates, followed by the rapid expansion of their balance sheets in order to attempt to “stimulate” economic growth has, to say the least, been something of an abysmal failure. Unemployment is still high, economic growth barely makes it any higher than a rounding error and real wage rates continue to stagnate as they have done for the past ten years or more. Benefitting only Wall Street, the new money has pushed stock markets to record highs and bond yields to record lows, so much so that owning these assets over the past five years has been the closest one can get to a sure bet. Main Street, however, having had to deal with the reality of the fact that the debt-fuelled consumption mania is no longer sustainable and that real savings to grow businesses are in short supply, continues to languish in what seems like a completely separate realm from the casino operations of the financial markets. With positive interest rates now as low as they can possibly go and with little to show for it, it is no surprise that the prospect of negative interest rates in order to force everyone to spend their way into a recovery is now a real one. Indeed, it is already very much a reality in Switzerland and Denmark.

The proposal for negative interest rates rests on a typical Keynesian plea that the government and central banks did not act “drastically enough” in attempting to defibrillate the economy back to growth. Contrary to understanding the lack of any meaningful recovery as a failure of their policies, they instead turn around and say “if it is this bad now then imagine how terrible it would have been had we done nothing at all!” The patient is therefore prescribed ever greater doses of bad medicine in spite of the fact that it is the medicine that is killing him. (Has it not also been said often that the definition of insanity is to repeat an act continuously with the expectation of a different outcome?) Indeed, the economy is so saturated with debt that only paying people to get deeper into it has any prospect expanding the volume of spending.

Negative interest rates are, of course, a praxeological absurdity and could not come about through anything except government force. It is tantamount to placing a premium on future goods as opposed to present goods, so that the prospect of receiving £100 today is less valuable than receiving £100 in a year’s time. Practically, what this means is that, if you deposit £100 in the bank today with an interest rate of -5%, you will have only £95 in one year’s time. You are, therefore, quite literally paying the bank to borrow your money, a proposition absurd to anyone except a tenured professor of economics. Since when, to invert a popular proverb, has a bird in the bush been worth two in the hand? The idea, of course, is that you will be so keen to avoid the interest charges that you will cease to be an “evil” saver and rush out to spend all of your money as soon as you can. Thus the magical Keynesian multiplier will burst into life, restoring us to the land of milk and honey. What’s more, they hope that it will encourage a flurry of borrowing as all the excess reserves piling up in bank vaults (or, rather, on their computer screens) are now lent out to those eager to be paid to hold cash. Traditionally, of course, banks earn their revenue by paying depositors a lower interest rate than they charge to borrowers. With negative interest rates it seems as though the situation will reverse: the bank will make its money by charging its depositors more than it has to pay its borrowers.

Such a ridiculous idea does, of course, run into the unfortunate fact that every unit of money has to be in someone’s cash balance and if all cash balances attract a negative interest rate there can only be an incentive to borrow if the rate on your deposit account is less than the terms of the loan – in other words, you have to pay less to hold the cash than you get paid for taking out the loan. Further, if someone can only get rid of their cash by passing it onto someone else and that latter person can then only do the same then the logical end of the proposal is hyperinflation. That aside, however, what will be the likely effects of the introduction of such a policy?

The first likelihood is that, with bank deposits now charging an interest levy, holding hard cash under the mattress becomes an attractive alternative. In both inflationary and deflationary environments it will lose less and gain more than a bank deposit. Indeed, at first blush, libertarians should welcome this possibility. After all, it is free deposit banking that has resulted in people willingly stashing all of their cash in fractional reserve banks, enabling them to pyramid loan upon loan on top of them and thus causing the disastrous business cycle. When money consisted of gold or silver stored in full reserve banks it was natural for banks to levy a charge for this storage service. People could either choose to accept the charge in return for the safekeeping of their assets, or prefer to keep the cash in their own storage provisions at no cost. Viewed this way, negative interest rates give the appearance of a return to something more akin to cash handling as it would be in a libertarian world. Unfortunately, of course, the negative interest rate is an arbitrary figure and does not represent the true value of storage services to holders of deposit accounts, and having been accustomed to the provision of such services for free anyway a mass withdrawal will be the most likely response. Indeed, it would not be unsurprising if something akin to Gresham’s Law emerged where, legally, bank deposits and cash notes trade at par but where undervalued cash becomes hoarded and people keep only a minimum amount of overvalued bank deposits with which to use for their exchanges. Such an outcome would, of course, utterly defeat the purpose of negative interest rates which is to swell the volume of spending through electronic exchange. In other words, the point at which negative interest rates begin a flight into cash will mark the true limits of monetary policy in creating a spending splurge.

Needless to say, of course, the likely government response is to restrict cash holding with a view to eliminating cash altogether in order to concentrate as much money as possible in commercial bank deposits. Such an end has, in and of itself, been a cherished aim of government, as it permits oversight of and control over every single financial transaction. Under the guise of “combating terrorism” such restrictions have already been tightened recently in France, where, from September of this year, cash payments in excess of €1000 will be illegal. Similar restrictions have appeared, in the last few years, in Spain, Italy, Russia and Mexico. Where cash remains less restricted, any attempts to convert deposits into cash may be met with refusal and obstinacy, as a Swiss pension fund discovered recently when it attempted to switch its deposits to paper notes stored in a vault. Indeed all of this harkens back to the era when banks overinflated on a monetary base of redeemable gold. Back then, redemption in gold was restricted to concentrate people’s cash holdings in paper notes. Now, redemption in paper notes is restricted to concentrate cash holdings in deposits.

The likely reaction to this is that, with deposits and fixed income securities losing value in both nominal and real terms, people will abandon these assets in pursuit of safer stores of value – probably gold and silver. In other words, shorn of the ability to withdraw hard cash, people will keep on deposit only the amount they need to meet their current expenditures while the rest of their savings will be ploughed into harder assets. A flight out of debt instruments would trigger a deleveraging and usually, in such circumstances, the safe home for such funds would be cash. But if cash will also be subject to a negative interest rate and with no ability to withdraw paper notes, then movement of the money into gold would cause the gold price to rise. We would therefore have the peculiar effect of increasing asset prices during an era of deflation. Such are the ways in which monetary policy can turn the world upside down.

The likely effects of a negative interest policy as outlined here demonstrate the limits of a monetary policy that attempts to kick the economy back into gear through spending. You can print all of the money that you like; you can lower interest rates as far as they will go; you can make it impossible for people to withdraw their cash; but like the proverbial horse to water, you cannot force people to borrow and spend. In short, you cannot cheat the market with increasingly absurd tricks that would have baffled even the monetary charlatans of yesterday. Only liquidation of the existing debt and a return to sound money with interest rates determined by the supply of and demand for saved funds will create a proper, sustainable recovery on the path to prosperity.

View the video version of this post.

Economic Myths #12 – The Deflation Danger

2 Comments

Politicians and mainstream economists have been warning us again lately of the so-called “deflation danger” – the idea that falling prices is calamitous for economic growth and that a perpetual and ceaseless price inflation is needed in order to bring us back to prosperity. With price deflation, so these sages tell us, lower prices today cause people to expect prices to be lower tomorrow so that, as a result, they put off their purchases until a later date, which causes prices to fall further and further. Hence we end up in an endless downward spiral of depression and impoverishment. Inflating prices, however, cause people to buy today so that they may insulate themselves from future price rises, thus bringing about economic growth and an increase in the standard of living. This fresh round of deflation warnings comes in the wake of the news that prices in the Eurozone were 0.2% lower than at the same time the previous year – something of an hilarious travesty when, regardless of the merits of the deflation thesis, this figure amounts to little more than a rounding error.

In basic economic theory, a price will fall as a response to the fact that demand is insufficient to meet supply at the current price. For some reason – say, as a result of the revelation of malinvestments – the demand curve for a particular asset or good shifts sharply to the left, meaning that prices now have to fall in order for the inventory to be sold to a willing level of demand. It will eventually settle at such a level. Indeed, all of the talk of “illiquid” and “toxic” assets on the balance sheet of banks following the 2008 financial crisis resulted from the unwillingness to find these lower prices and to, instead, retain assets at the old, inflated prices. Any asset, however, is surprisingly liquid when you offer a low enough price for it. However, the deflation thesis rests on the proposition that the initial fall in price, based on some exogenous factor, will then in and of itself cause a further shift in the demand curve to the left so that prices have to fall further. And then that this second price fall will cause yet another shift in the demand curve and prices will fall even further. Hence the thesis requires repeated, fresh rounds of shifting demand curves which are caused by nothing other than a previous shift in the demand curve.

However, there is no reason to suggest that prices falling as a result of a genuine, external change in valuation will, in and of themselves, cause further price falls. Indeed, every businessman will tell you that if you lower prices people will buy more and if you raise them people will buy less – precisely the opposite of the deflation thesis. More importantly, however, even if such price falls did result, there is no further reason to suggest that it would cause economic calamity. First, goods are, at the end of the day, evaluated for the ends that they meet. The fulfilment of these ends, as a result of the logic of human action, cannot be put off indefinitely and each individual will have to consume at some point. A person may simply be waiting for prices to bottom out before he purchases but there must come a time where he believes this to be. Taken to its logical extreme, the deflation thesis suggests that falling prices will cause people to simply stop acting altogether – that they cease seeking the fulfilment of ends through means. This will never happen so long as they remain human. Indeed, price deflation in entire industries – particularly in personal technology, such as computers and mobile phones – has not caused the collapse of this sector precisely because the value of owning a more expensive computer today is greater than that of waiting for a less expensive one in, say, three years. In other words, even if a person knows that a computer may cost £1000 today but only half as much in three years, he will still spend £1000 today if the benefit to be derived from the computer today is more valuable than saving £500 and waiting three years for that benefit. Second, viewed from the point of view of the satisfaction of each individual’s ends, there is no reason to suggest that artificially inflating prices, thus causing a person to buy sooner, will cause a greater fulfilment of that person’s ends compared to an economy where there is no deliberate price inflation. From that individual’s point of view, the earlier purchase may be wasteful compared to the later purchase he would have made had prices not been forcibly inflated. Third, even though the opposite of “catastrophic” deflation – namely, hyperinflation – in and of itself causes shifts in the demand curve to the right that accelerate the price rises, the motivation for this is not so much the rising prices as the realisation, on the part of the public, that the currency is worthless. Hence, a hyperinflation always ends in a flight to other currencies and stores of value. Indeed, following the recent Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the government there has gone as far as to recognise no fewer than nine foreign currencies as legal tender. No such realisation exists during falling prices and, funnily enough, people do not seem to be eager to flee to inflating currencies during a deflation! Fourth, there is no reason to suggest that falling prices will dampen business prospects. Nominal revenue will, of course, fall during a general price deflation. However, the success of a business – measured by its profit – depends not only upon the height of its revenue but also upon the height of its costs and these too are falling. Businesses would only put off purchasing and investing if revenue was predicted to remain constant while costs were predicted to fall, or fall further. If, however, falling revenue is met by falling costs then there still exists a profit motive, with every incentive to invest and trade today. Fifth, much of the deflation fear comes from the monetarist analysis of the Great Depression where, indeed, there was a monetary contraction1. However, the stagnation during that era was not due to the deflation per se but because of the widespread attempt to keep wages and prices high in spite of the monetary contraction. Had prices been allowed to fall then recovery would have been much swifter.

The real reason for the deflation scare is, of course, because perpetual inflation serves to protect the vested interests of the state and its corporate cronies and banker elites. The characteristic of any deflation is that the purchasing power of the monetary unit becomes stronger; all else being equal, therefore, assets that are merely quoted in the unit of currency and promise to pay no amount of fixed currency – such as shares, houses, precious metals, and so on – will fall in value. However, assets that are denominated in the unit of currency and promise to pay a fixed number of dollars, euros or whatever – such as bonds and debt instruments – will not lose value. Governments and banks, having benefited from borrowing cheap, printed money, used it to purchase assets that are mostly dollar quoted while their liabilities are dollar denominated2. Hence, a deflation would cripple the prices of the government’s or a bank’s assets while leaving its liabilities untouched. Hence not only large banks but entire states would be obliterated by bankruptcy. Clearly the political-banker elite cannot permit this to happen. The need for constant inflation is not, therefore, something that is necessary for economic growth and the wellbeing of the general public. Rather, it is necessitated by the asset-liability mix brought about by previous inflation which would threaten the existence of large, establishment institutions if it was to reverse. They need more cheap money, more theft of your purchasing power, in order to keep their assets rising and their liabilities from doing the same. The deflation myth, therefore, is nothing more than a part of the big statist fraud, benefitting a select few and the expense of everybody else.

View the video version of this post.

1Although the failure to overcome this was not from want of trying – see Murray Rothbard, America’s Great Depression, Part III, where he argues that the deflation was the result of factors that negated the inflationary response of the government and the Federal Reserve.

2Although mortgages, which were a heavy factor in the 2008 financial crisis, are dollar denominated, the security behind the loan – the amount the lender will receive in the event that the borrower can no longer pay – is the house that the mortgage has been used to purchase. This asset is merely dollar quoted and hence during a deflation the value of the security of a bad mortgage will dissipate and with it any chance of recovery at par for the mortgagee.

Economic Myths #6 – Price Stability

Leave a comment

One of the so-called mandates that our economic lords and masters have arrogated for themselves is that of maintaining so-called price stability, a constant purchasing power of the monetary unit in our wallets. At first blush, price stability sounds rather appealing – not only does it “bless” us with the apparition of certainty but might we not also be “protected” by the potential of higher prices in the future, so we never have to curtail the amount that we can buy and enjoy? If so we can therefore assure ourselves that our cost of living will be sustained and manageable, relieved of the horror that the essential consumables may some day be out of our reach.

Unfortunately this ambition is not only disastrous for a complex economy but is also antithetical to the nature of human action in the first place. The whole purpose of economising action is to attempt to achieve more for less – to direct the scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends and to gain the highest possible outputs with the lowest possible inputs. In short, economic progress means that we are gradually able to attain more and more for the same amount of labour; or, to put it another way, we could attain the same quantity of goods for a lower amount of labour. Any consistent attempt to stabilise the prices in the economy would not only target the goods that we buy with our money but also the goods that we sell – and that for most of us means our labour! But if we cannot sell our labour for any more and if we cannot buy our wares for any less then it means that we will simply be locked into a repetitive cycle of working, buying, consuming and working again for the same prices for the whole of our lives with no improvement in the standard of living whatsoever. Instead of economic progress bringing goods at cheaper prices to the lowest earners, everyone will now have to attempt to be a high earner – i.e. by putting in more labour – in order to accomplish any increase in their wellbeing.

Of course, real price stability never does and never can work in this way for it is impossible for a centralised authority to monitor and regulate all the many millions of individual prices and exchanges that occur every day in the economy. Rather they target the mythical pseudo-concept of the general “price level”, usually concocted by taking a selective index of goods, an index that can be altered conveniently in order to paint the data in the fashion desired. Individual prices within the index, however, may still fluctuate relative to each other even though the absolute price average may appear constant – a fact that may not mean a great deal to the bureaucrat but is of great importance to the individuals who wish to purchase those particular goods. Furthermore, because of the belief that a dose of price inflation is good for a growing economy, “stability” usually tends to be defined as including some measure of price inflation such as the Bank of England’s 2% inflation target. We are apparently “stable” when the government is robbing your pay packet of some of its purchasing power, it seems.

Such a policy is not restricted to existing as a mere moderate tempering of an otherwise healthy and growing economy. Rather, it can have disastrous and deleterious effects upon the entire system. The outcome of a genuinely growing economy with sound capital investment should be a gradual, secular price deflation where goods and services become cheaper over time. If central banks attempt to counter this in order to achieve stability it must lower interest rates and print more money in order to devalue the monetary unit relative to goods in order to prevent prices from falling. However such an act is what induces the ill-fated business cycle; prices may appear stable but the relative prices of capital goods will begin to rise and those of consumption goods to fall as the new money gets sucked into ultimately unsustainable investment projects. This is precisely what happened in the 1920s when a high degree of productivity was countered by a voluminous expansion of credit that masked price rises, giving the illusion of price stability and suckering promoters of the scheme (such as Irving Fisher) into believing that they were living in a new era of permanent prosperity. The same was also true of the run up to the tech boom collapse at the turn of the century and the housing market collapse of 2008; these had been preceded by a period of low interest rates and apparently low price inflation – alleged hallmarks of an successful economy – that camouflaged the underlying distortions, leaving mainstream economists scratching their heads in confusion as to what went wrong.

Far from creating certainty and consistency, achieving “price stability” is one of the very worst horrors of a centralised, bureaucratically managed economy. Let us leave prices – which, after all, are supposed to result from the underlying supply and demand according to individual preferences – to the free market so that we can create a genuinely stable and lasting economic prosperity.

View the video version of this post.