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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The current crisis in the Ukraine, where a Western-prompted coup of the pro-Russian government has led to Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and “protection” for its naval interests in the Black Sea has highlighted the attitude of the West, and of the United States in particular, to what may be regarded as their “exceptionalism”. Whatever standards other countries and governments are held to, the US believes that it is permitted to deviate from (nay, obliterate) those standards, labelling their own actions with some other, innocuous term while utilising some half-baked moral justification in order to promote its acceptability. What is, for other countries, an illegal invasion of a sovereign state is, when the US does it, an act of “liberation”. When someone else organises a rebellion against a sovereign government it’s a violation of international law; but the US only “spreads democracy”. When other states commit horrendous acts of torture or indiscriminate murder they are “war crimes”; for the US, these are tactics that are necessary in the just and noble “war on terror”. Indeed Washington’s leaders have become so blinded by their sense of exceptionalism that they fail to realise that the case of the Ukraine, more than most others, has drawn stark attention to this unrelenting hypocrisy. Russia’s interests in the Ukraine are far more pressing than any interest that the US has either there or in any of its previous catastrophes such Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever else into which it has poked its heavily armed nose. The Crimean population, according to a referendum held on March 16th, is overwhelmingly in favour of not only Russian intervention but of outright annexation of the region by Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s response, thus far at least, has not been to steam roller in, guns blazing, but has, rather, been more measured. So not only is the US protesting Russia’s actions, actions which the US happily takes everywhere around the world – it is doing so while Russia has stronger interests, is heavily supported by the indigenous population, and has taken weaker action than the US has in any of its self-invented skirmishes.

The concept of exceptionalism, however, is not something that is restricted to the US or is somehow born out of the US psyche. Rather, exceptionalism traces its roots to the very heart of how government operates domestically. If people steal from each other, it is called “theft” and is criminalised, yet when government steals it is permitted and is called “taxation”. If a company dominates an industry it is called a “monopoly” and must be broken up; if government does it, it is called “nationalisation” (probably with some other seductive sound bite such as the industry is being run “for the people”). If Bernie Madoff takes cash from customers to pay returns to previous investors, it is called a pyramid scheme and he is locked up; when government does precisely the same thing it is called Social Security. If the mafia forces you to pay tribute in return for security it is called a “protection racket”; when the government forces you to contribute to its armies, navies and air forces it is called “national defence”. Government necessarily conditions its operatives to believe that they are excepted from the common morality to which all other human beings must adhere. It is only because the US is the de facto most powerful government on Earth (although it is encouraging to see Obama’s belligerent efforts coming to nought in both the current crisis and the crisis in Syria) that this exceptionalism becomes magnified onto the international scene.  So in just the same way as government does not have to behave in the same way as its citizens, neither does the most powerful government have to behave like any other government. The US is not alone in this regard and has been preceded by other wealthy and heavily armed states – Ancient Rome, and the British for instance – who, coupled with a hubristic belief that they represent the pinnacle of “civilisation” in an otherwise barbarous world, have ploughed their way over everyone else whom they expect to be held to other standards. Indeed, when a pirate was brought before Alexander the Great and asked to explain his actions, the pirate is believed to have replied that what he, the pirate, was doing, was exactly the same as that which Alexander was doing. The only difference was that Alexander terrorised the seas with a “navy” and was styled an “emperor”, while the pirate did so with a “petty ship” and was thus brandished a “robber”1.

The conquest, therefore, of the exceptionalism of the most powerful nation can only be achieved by eradicating that exceptionalism at home – in domestic government and domestic policies. All human beings, whether they work for the government, the civil service, or are private citizens, must adhere to the same common morality and must be held to the same moral standards. Better, still eradicate government completely and the political caste – together with the divisions it creates between itself and those of us less exalted – will disappear entirely. Only then can we hope for a peaceful world in which all humans are equal before the law – both nationally and internationally.

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1See St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.