Negative Interest Rates

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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.

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Means, Ends, Production and Consumption

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One of the apparent weaknesses of economics (of any school of thought) is that as soon as one gets past the “Robinson Crusoe” stage of an isolated individual and proceeds to the elaborate explanations of production, exchange, and the division of labour, it becomes extremely easy to forget that at the start of every economic system, at the bottom of every theory, is the individual acting man, the person who has ends that he achieves with means through actions. There are two, seemingly contradictory (although actually related) dangers from this oversight. First, by separating the categories of production, consumption, saving, investment, entrepreneurship and so forth into separate personae under the division of labour, we forget that these qualities are inherent in the action of all human beings and are simply abstractions from the different categories of action applied to different groups in order to demonstrate their role in the economic system as a whole. What results, therefore, is atomistic appreciation of these different categories, so that, for example, we talk of the needs of “producers” or of the welfare of “employees” or of interests of “borrowers” or of “savers” being punished, and so on. Secondly, we can go to the opposite extreme and only look at the whole economy, concluding erroneously that what is “good” for the economy (if such a thing can be said) is also good for the individual human beings who make up that economy. These two dangers we will explore in turn.

 The Atomised Categories of the Economy

When looking at an individual human being, it is not outrageously difficult to understand how the object of each human being is to achieve his most highly valued ends with the scarce means available to him. We do not need to enter a deep, praxeological analysis to understand how the individual human will, all else being equal, seek to maximise his gains and minimise his costs. He will attempt to inflate the former and deflate the latter as far as it is possible for him so to do. It is also clear that the final object of all of his action is consumption – the enjoyment of the fruits of his toil, the benefit of which he predicts will outweigh the disutility of that toil. If, therefore, in a situation of isolation, a human decides to plough a field, plant seeds and then sow the resulting crop we can readily understand that he will seek to achieve the highest yield of crop possible while ploughing the field and sowing the seeds in a manner that bears him the lightest labour and the lowest cost. If he is able to achieve the same yield with a lower cost or a higher yield with the same cost, he will, all else being equal, proceed to do so. Hence, if he is suddenly gifted a tractor that halves his ploughing time, we can understand easily why he will make use of it. If he can purchase a new type of seed that doubles the crop yield but with no extra work then, again, no one will have any difficulty in appreciating this. The idea that we will always take the shortest route to the same end or the same route to a higher end can be empathetically understood by any human – we are always trying to spend less and have more, cut down on X and increase Y, all to yield the highest benefit for the minimum cost1.

What we can also readily appreciate in this scenario is the different categories of action inherent in the single, lone human. He is a consumer, a producer, an entrepreneur, a saver, an investor, and a capitalist. He must carry out all of these activities with the means available to him on his own behalf. And hence it should be obvious that all of these activities are carried on not for their own sake but for the valuable ends and the improvements to his life that they achieve. If all of the ends could be achieved with no work, production, no saving, no investment and no capital accumulation whatsoever few would doubt that he would be in a far better position. How many of us would turn down the opportunity to purchase anything we wanted without having to go to work each day? Judging by the fact that more than half of the eligible population play the national lottery, it stands to reason that this would be few. It would, therefore, be absolutely absurd for us to say that a person’s life would be made better by loading additional burdens onto the ones that already exist. Who in their right mind would say that our lone human would be better off digging the soil with his bare hands rather than with a tractor and plough? Or that he is better off having to transport water on his shoulders than with the aid of pipes and irrigation? This would only mean that he would endure more work, more hardship but for the same end. No one in his right mind would advocate such a course of action. Additionally, no one would ever say (all else being equal) that a person has “produced too much”. We would not take the fruits of our labour and burn a half of it because the extra productivity means that we might not have to work next week. The result of this would be that a person forces himself to endure the same work for a lesser end. Again, all of this is readily understandable and no person would advocate such courses of action and expect to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, however, this appears to be the approach that we take as soon as the division of labour comes into play and we examine the economy as a whole. For now, when considering the economy in such a manner, while all persons will still retain their multi-faceted characteristics2, the roles of consumer, producer, saver, investor, entrepreneur and so on are not concentrated in an individual but are split out so as to understand them in the new context of the division of labour and exchange. This is, of course, highly useful as it is only by utilising this approach that we can hope to gain any understanding of economic phenomena in the world in which we live, a world that is certainly not isolated but where each individual relies heavily on the productivity of everyone else. However, there is a danger in compartmentalising these activities and considering them only in isolation. With our lone human, we noted that less work means the same enjoyment for a lower burden of effort. A labour saving device, such as machine to pick fruit, for example, would obviously be of a benefit to him. But in the whole economy where the roles of consumer and producer are split, if such a device is introduced, the relative benefits and burdens appear to be split also. Hence, person X, the purchaser and consumer of fruit, is benefited by the lower cost of the product that the machine has permitted. But person Y, who might have been a fruit picker before the machine was introduced, might now find himself completely out of a job (or he may find that at least the demand for his services is drastically reduced) with apparently no corresponding benefit. The conclusion that is often drawn is that there has been a great harm and that “something must be done” to alleviate the plight of the formerly employed fruit pickers. This becomes manifest in a number of policy considerations such as “make work” rules, subsidies, campaigns against machinery and so on, many of which are instigated under union pressure.

The errors of these conclusions come from looking only at the production element of the economy and ignoring the consumer element. For no one in their right mind would say that an individual human should “make more work” for himself or destroy productive machinery to “give him a job”. It is obvious that such things would be a detriment to his ability to consume the fruits of labour. Nor would he be able to subsidise himself by taking money out of one of his pockets and putting it into the other. The very aim of every individual person is to gain as much as he can while doing less work, not more. Yet this is precisely what we do when looking at the economy as a whole. If productive machinery is allowed to displace jobs then this means that the consumers benefit with lower prices and/or increased product. To ward off the loss of jobs by artificially restricting the saving of labour is simply to “benefit” the production end of the economy but to “burden” the consumer end. But the whole point of production is consumption. These people, being kept in jobs that are unneeded, are in no way contributing towards the benefits of consumption. Their work continues as a deadweight cost and there is neither dignity nor achievement in perpetuating their pointless labour. Furthermore, while it is true that they will suffer unemployment in the meantime, the increased supply of free labour will cause wages to fall temporarily. This means that new lines of employment, those that were not previously economic when the people’s labour was desired to pick fruit, are now suddenly viable. New entrepreneurs will rush in to hire the spare labour and devote it to their new enterprises. One must not forget that there will be a degree of hardship during the transition, particularly if one was in a now redundant job for many decades or if a particular skill or talent has now become obsolete. But by deploying the labour to new lines of work, the array of consumer goods now increases. The labour saving device enables more consumption for lower prices, the final end of production, rather than stifling it in the production of the same goods for the same prices. In his role as a consumer every person will feel this benefit over time as real wages increase as a result of the increased productivity.

All of this goes to show that, far from failing to explain anything noteworthy, the economics of the isolated man – so-called “Robinson Crusoe” economics – must be thoroughly borne in mind if one wishes to avoid these misunderstandings.

The Broad View of the Economy

The second error we outlined above was of the opposite ilk – that, rather than looking at parts of the economy in compartmentalised components, one looks only at the whole economy and only thinks in terms of hermetically sealed aggregates and totals. With the individual, lone human we noted that anything that increases his consumption and reduces the burden of production is of a benefit to him. When he is, in effect, his own “mini-economy” all burdens are felt by him and all benefits are enjoyed by him; the one is weighed against the other in the same mind. If, for example, a person desires more to bake more bread and to achieve this he is going to deliberately curtail his production of meat then there is no problem in saying that the burden of the reduction of meat is offset by the increase in bread, for this individual feels both the burden of less meat and the benefit of more bread. His action demonstrates that he prefers bread to meat. This is not the case in the economy as a whole, where roles are concentrated under the division of labour and burdens and benefits are scattered across many – literally millions of – different people. It is a mistake to assume that there is any one, particular event that will be “good for the economy as a whole”. For the economy is just a number of people trading and co-operating peacefully; it is not an entity in its own right, it does not feel, it does think, it does not desire and feels neither pleasure nor pain. While we can, for example, say that a decline in meat production offset by a rise in steel production is a benefit “for the economy as whole” in the sense that the individual members of this economy have chosen to prefer steel over meat (and that jobs in the meat industry will shift to steel production), it is not the case that some broad measures of “output” and “input” leads to the conclusion that all is well. The most pervasive manifestation of this error is the almost ubiquitous obsession with GDP, a figure that is calculated from numerous aggregates that bear no relationship whatsoever with the underlying desires of the acting humans. A particularly crucial element in this aggregates is that of government spending. If GDP starts to fall, say, from the onset of a recession, then Government can simply prop it up by increasing its share of the GDP pie. But it does not follow from this that there is any benefit from this spending. It can only be concluded that an exchange is beneficial if the parties to exchange are volunteers. They only exchange because their action demonstrates that they desire the good that is gained more than the good that is given up. Government spending, however, is funded by taxation3, a compulsory exchange, not a voluntary one. Because the exchange was compulsory it demonstrates that the tax-paying party would prefer not to have his money in the hands of the government. If he did so prefer he would have paid it across voluntarily. When the government spends this money, therefore, it can only do so in ways that are less valuable to those people who provided the funding. There is no sense in which anyone is “better off”. The big aggregate numbers may look impressive following this expenditure but what has not been realised is that they are completely severed from the preferences of the individual people. The situation is no different from one man holding a gun to another’s head and forcing the latter to devote his productive resources to churn out stuff that he doesn’t want. The effort, the production and the physical results may look impressive but there is no point in producing anything if it does not satisfy someone’s most urgently desired needs. What has been gained, like Bastiat’s famous broken window, has simply been at the expense of something that was more highly desired. The same is true also of so-called “infrastructure” spending, which ignores the intricate web of the capital structure. This has been dealt with in detail here. Suffice it to say for the moment that government spending on capital goods does not help the economy; rather, the effect is to divert the economy from a path on which it was meeting the needs of individual people onto a path where it must adapt itself to the new capital resource. Lines of production that depend upon that resource will become profitable, but only at the expense of other, more highly desired lines that have to be abandoned because their funding was compulsorily diverted to government capital expenditure.

The same fallacy – of viewing the economy only as a whole – is evident in the whole saga of the business cycle and credit expansion.  For while the forced lowering of the rate of interest swells the aggregate numbers – everyone is employed, stock markets climb, skyscrapers start shooting up, etc. – what has been forgotten is the underlying preferences of the individuals in the economy. They are not willing to devote the resources necessary to sustain the new capital structure which is precisely why, when the credit expansion stops, the whole lot comes tumbling down. Indeed, the entire approach of mainstream economists seems to be that the economy is doing well as long as somebody, somewhere, is spending on something, i.e. as long as there is some kind of “activity” then there is no cause for alarm. Their failure to acknowledge the wastefulness of the boom and the necessity of the bust demonstrates their lack of comprehension of the fact that spending the scarce resources at our disposal on stuff that is simply not wanted is emphatically not economising activity – it is just waste. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis should be that you cannot build houses if people are not prepared to pay for the bricks.

The Praxeological Method

These two errors – of looking at the economy too narrowly and then too broadly – can only be avoided by following the praxeological method. For both errors have their root in the failure to grasp the same basic point – that all economising activity is initiated by humans who desire, choose and act so as to devote the scarce resources available to best meet their most highly valued ends. By understanding this crucial fact one would never focus too narrowly and advocate a programme to help certain producers at the expense of others; but neither also would one look too broadly and conclude that what appears to be some kind of economic activity – expressed through aggregates, totals and figures – is always a good thing. Human choice, actions and ends are the foundation of economic understanding and it is vital that is restored to its rightful place in economic thought.

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1We do not, of course, have to assume that every human wants to “have more” in the sense of material fulfilment; rather that every human wishes to meet his ends for the lowest costs whatever the substance of these ends may be.

2A labourer, for example, must, to a degree, possess entrepreneurial skill in choosing the employer from which his labour will yield the highest return; he will also be a saver and investor if, for example, he saves some of his income in a pension fund. And everyone, whatever their broader role in the economy, is also a consumer.

3Even if it is funded by borrowing not only must these borrowed funds be repaid with tax loot but also government borrowing crowds out private borrowing.