Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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Noah Smith: Mom in Hell

Coppo di Marcovaldo’s “Inferno”

This is a guest post by Noah Smith. 


How can you be happy in Heaven while your mom is in Hell?

In his famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, Jonathan Edwards said:

There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

Now, in a time when most people still lived lives of poverty and hardship, florid language like that was probably necessary just to get people to pay attention in church. But the sermon illustrates something that I’ve never really understood about Christianity - the idea of Hell.

In the Christian concept of Hell, if you believe in Jesus (and in some denominations, maybe satisfy a few other requirements), you go to Heaven, and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you go to Hell. So in Christianity, it’s perfectly possible for you to be in Heaven while your mom is in Hell, experiencing all the nasty stuff that Jonathan Edwards describes.

Now, a Christian will tell you, we don’t know who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But after you die, you must surely be able to know. If you’re in Heaven, and you want to say hi to your mom, you can just look her up. If she’s in Heaven with you, you should be able to easily find her, using whatever version of the white pages exists in Heaven. If you can’t find her, you will know by process of elimination that she must be in Hell.

So, you’re supposed to be happy in Heaven, right? But suppose your mom goes to Hell. How can you be eternally happy, knowing that your mom is experiencing eternal torment?

Maybe Heaven changes you. Maybe once you go to Heaven, you don’t mind if your mom is in Hell. But that would be a really big personality change, right? I think that if I became someone who didn’t mind my mom suffering eternal torment, I wouldn’t really be me anymore. It would be someone else in Heaven, and I’d just be gone.

Now, a Christian believer in Hell might respond, “What’s to understand? If you go to Heaven and your mom goes to Hell, then you’re just going to have to deal with it.” But in that case, the idea that Heaven is a place where you’re happy forever has got to be tossed out the window.

So I just don’t understand how the Heaven/Hell system works. If people only cared about themselves, then it would make sense, but we care about other people too. And it’s just flat-out impossible for most people to be totally happy while knowing that someone they love is being tortured eternally in the most horrific concentration camp in the cosmos. But according to Christianity, that situation is perfectly capable of happening.

I just don’t get it.


Don’t miss Noah’s other guest religion posts:

  1. God and SuperGod 
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God

For other religion posts, see my Religion, Philosophy, Humanities, Science Fiction and Science sub-blog. 

Filed under religionhumanitiesscience

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Yuan Tian: Will the Real Estate Bubble Burst in China?


image source

In this guest post, Yuan Tian, a student in my “Monetary and Financial Theory" class, discusses one of the most important dangers the world economy now faces: a possible collapse of housing prices in China, with unknown effects on China’s banking system. Here is what Yuan has to say: 


It’s always a hot topic among Chinese people to talk about real estate prices. The bubble has become bigger and bigger since the 1990s. Of coruse, a bubble is an unsustainable rise in the price of an asset, well above the market price given fundamentals. A bubble is indicated by three signs: a gap between disposable income and home prices, rising inventory, and a rising number of properties per person.

In a way that would be hard to imagine for Americans, in the current real estate situation the majority of Chinese people still can’t afford a house after working hard for a lifetime. China’s real estate prices have been changing in dramatic ways: prices soaring in the past, and now perhaps an environment of declining prices. That is the question: will the real estate bubble really burst in China? 

Optimists insist that the prices won’t decrease a lot due to the large population and demand in China. They also mentioned that right now in the bubble, China’s residential mortgage debt is only 15% while in the U.S. borrowing 80% of a house’s value is considered conservative. 

Pessimists don’t think so. They are arguing that as China’s financial market matures, people might be less likely to purchase houses because they will have more other investment options.

As for population growth, statistics show that the population will reach the peak in 2018 and labor force will shrink starting in 2015. Thus people predict that the property prices will start to fall between 2017 and 2018 thanks to the “one child policy” and China’s aging population composition. According to this information, pessimists predict a 40% decrease in the next five years since there will be fewer people willing to purchase a house but the supply is still large. Anther great concern, that I take very seriously, is the possibility of falling dominoes. Once the supply is bigger than the demand, real estate companies will face a money chain rupture. They will have to decrease the price to attract more buyers and save the company.

If there is a crash, it could cause a financial crisis like the United States faced in 2008. In the US, housing prices declined steeply after peaking in mid-2006, and it became difficult for many borrowers to refinance their loans. As adjustable-rate mortgages began to reset at higher interest rates (causing higher monthly payments), mortgage delinquencies soared. Securities backed by mortgages, including subprime mortgages, which were widely held by financial firms globally, lost most of their value. Global investors tried to drastically reduce their holdings of mortgage-backed debt and other securities, and there was a decline in the capacity and willingness of the private financial system to support lending. Concerns about the soundness of U.S. credit and financial markets led to tightening credit around the world and slowing economic growth in the U.S. and Europe. 

To save the market, right now Chinese government is trying hard to come up with policy interventions. Let’s have a brief look at China’s housing industry changes and government policy responses in recent years.

Before 2003, as part of fostering economic growth in China’s, the Chinese government regulated and supported the under-developed housing market. From 2000 on, there was no more government housing allocation in China and people had to purchase houses through housing companies. After that, the government enacted a series new rules and regulations such as lower mortgage rates, reduced down payments, and lower transaction fees to further stimulate the housing industry.

Then in 2002, the Public Land Building System was enacted. Following in 2004, all lands started to be put up for auction. It was around that time that housing prices began to rise. From 2004 to 2006, with Chinese government encouraging housing sales and offered many benefits to the housing industry as well as fostering economic growth more generally. Prices of houses rose a lot not only in big cities but also in small inland cities. Construction boomed rapidly during this period.

In 2005, in response to the increasing prices, “Eight Rules,” “New Eight Rules” and “Opinion of Such Departments as the Ministry of Construction on Effectively Stabilizing House Prices” were enacted, marking the central government’s first efforts to rein in home prices. But the trend was hard to stop. For example, over the course of the one year, 2005, average housing prices in Beijing increased by 20%, while the price had increased only 0.78% from 2000 to 2004. The bubble has only gotten worse since then, despite the government’s efforts to stop it. 

Later in 2010, China posted the “Notice of the State Council on Resolutely Curbing the Soaring of Housing Prices in Some Cities”  to require a down payment on second homes from 40% to 50%. In addition, banks must charge a minimum mortgage rate on second homes of 1.1 times the benchmark interest rate, and increased down payments on first home larger than 90 square meters from 20% to 30%. Then in 2011, China had “National Eight” real estate market regulations. On the other hand, Chinese government has started the property tax pilot program—a program I think is pretty useful. The program asks for higher property taxes for those who own more houses in China. It has been in place in Shanghai and Chongqing since 2011. 

Prices might be controllable in the future by government policies. So far, recent policies have not been given deadlines. In the short run, there may be volatility due to uncertainty. 

Though we can’t know when the bubble will burst, the recent situation in China gives some ominous portents. According to the Securities Times newspaper, housing developers in the industrial city of Hangzhou cut prices this week by an average 19% in a scramble to sell about 120,000 newly-built apartments. The current inventory of new, unsold units now exceeds the total number of housing units offered for sale in Beijing and Shanghai combined. A study by Shanghai’s Tongji University said real estate has been especially shaky in the northeastern city of Wenzhou, where new-home prices have fallen every month for the last two years. 

My view is that the housing bubble will burst in near future—or may now be in the process of bursting. 


Yuan Tian

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Matt Ridley, Michelle Klein and Rob Boyd on Population Size and Technology: Why Some Islanders Build Better Crab Traps

In this ungated Wall Street Journal article, Matt Ridley gives a nice report on research by Michelle Klein and Rob Boyd on the idea that higher effective population size leads to better technology.  The important idea that higher effective population size leads to better technology is also reflected in

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Miles on #econchat, March 30, 2014

#econchat organizes Twitter discussions about economics and the teaching of economics. I was the guest last night. I answered a wide variety of questions. I think you will find it interesting because of the high quality of the questions that I tried to answer. 

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On Master’s Programs in Economics


Image from the homepage of the University of Michigan MAE website

With the large demand for graduate education in economics by Chinese students, many economics departments have recently established terminal master’s programs in economics, or are seriously considering doing so. (A terminal master’s program is one that is separate from the PhD program and typically does not lead to a PhD in the same department.) I was Director of the Master of Applied Economics (MAE) Program at the University of Michigan from July 2010 to December 2012, so I wanted to share some thoughts about master’s programs in economics. 

The University of Michigan Master of Applied Economics Program. The MAE program at the University of Michigan was well-established long before I arrived as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in 1987. The composition of the student body has shifted over the years, but the basic nature of the program has not. Our MAE program is very flexible. The formal requirements can be found on the MAE website, but a surprisingly close approximation to the requirements is that there are 5 semester core courses, and then an additional 6 courses that in practice can be almost anything suitably advanced. (There is no master’s thesis in our MAE program.) Students greatly value this flexibility. Here are some examples of different categories of students in our MAE program: 

  1. Mid-career government officials who come to increase their knowledge of economics and their skills before returning to government service.  For example, in 2012 we admitted employees of the Central Banks of Japan, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, and Chile, and employees of other government agencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and China. 
  2. Dual-degree students in other programs at the University of Michigan who realize the value of learning more economics.  For example, in 2012 we had dual degree students who were also pursuing a degree in Public Policy, Financial Engineering, MBA and PhD from the Ross Business School, Kinesiology, Urban Planning, Natural Resources, Psychology, Statistics, Education, Health Services Organization and Policy, Industrial and Operations Engineering.
  3. Students who have recently received a bachelor’s degree who hope to prepare for a career in government service, including service in international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF. 
  4. Students who have recently received a bachelor’s degree who hope to prepare for a career in finance. 
  5.  Students who tried and failed to get into a Ph.D. program who need a way to further their economics training while they figure out what to do next in their lives if their plan of getting a Ph.D. looks impossible. 
  6. Students who belatedly realized their interest in economics and want to switch into economics from another discipline. 
  7. Students with a wide range of other objectives.  Here is a list drawn from admittees this year: (a) more analytical rigor to further a business career, (b) understand economics better after having been an economic reporter, (c) get a job in a think tank, as a consultant, as an economic analyst, or in an NGO, (d) understand the art market better, and (e) have a better chance of success as an entrepreneur or running a company.  

Most students can easily complete the program in 3 semesters, though a large minority choose to stay 4 semesters, given the attractions of being in our program and being in Ann Arbor. The 5 core courses are all specially designed for the MAE students. They are:

  • Math for Economists
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • 2 Semesters of Econometrics 

For their other 6 courses, MAE students fan out to a wide variety of courses. With a few exceptions, the number of MAE students in any one course they take as an elective is so few that they can easily be accommodated. These electives are all classes that would exist even if we didn’t have an MAE program. For example, MAE students take many advanced undergraduate economics classes. Our advanced undergraduate classes are at the right level for most MAE students, given how rigorous our undergraduate program is. But MAE students also take many classes from other departments and schools within the university: math classes, statistics classes, public policy classes and business school classes. (The University of Michigan has modest transfers between units to compensate units for doing part of the education having students from other schools in their classes. These are sufficient that other units don’t mind having our MAE students in their classes.) 

Preparation for PhD Programs? One of my biggest surprises when I became the Director of our MAE program was learning how small our role is in preparing students for PhD programs. As the examples I gave above, the bulk of our students had other goals. Indeed, the modal goal was to do something much like an MBA, but with less networking and more economic rigor. For those students who did want to go on to a PhD program, I had to tell them that our MAE program had no special magic in that regard. Noah Smith and I give our advice about getting into economics PhD programs in “The Complete Guide to Getting into an Economics PhD Program.” But getting a master’s degree is not a key component of that advice. I would be interested in the placement results of other master’s programs into PhD programs, but I felt lucky when we had a handful of our MAE graduates accepted into PhD programs. (Some PhD programs give a preference to graduates of their department’s master’s program. Michigan’s PhD program does not. So I am talking primarily about admission to the PhD programs of other universities.)

Resource Cost: What this means is that the incremental faculty resources needed to keep our MAE program going are only the equivalent of fielding 6 classes: the 5 core classes, plus 1 course worth of administrative time on the part of the Director. In addition, there is a staff coordinator (who has some other non-MAE duties in the department as well). Our MAE program also spends a few hundred dollars a year on parties. (My main innovations as Director of the program were aimed at fully integrating the MAE students into our department socially and making sure they interacted with one another socially as well.) That is about it.

I wish we had more resources devoted to career counseling for MAE students. I think the extra resources that would be needed are quite reasonable in magnitude. There have been discussions in our department about doing exactly that. Also, we have had discussions about adding one elective specifically for MAE students directed at research. 

Demand for Master’s Programs: I was amazed at the quality of the applicants to our MAE program. And it isn’t just the grades and test scores. The essays are heartfelt and impressive as well. Of the students we admitted, about 1 in 3 came to our program the first year I did admissions, and almost 1 in 2 came to our program the last year I did admissions. The overwhelming bulk of our applicants (75% or so) were from China. Yet we had no problem in filling out our MAE classes with good students even back in the days when China did not yet believe in students getting an education in Neoclassical economics. So the demand of students for an education in our MAE program far exceeds the number of slots we have. If we were a regular business, we would expand much more than we have. But elite universities remain elite by restricting the supply of spaces in their programs. And the elite reputation of a university spills over from one department to the next. So we are not allowed to expand our program beyond a target of about 50 students in each entering class. I suspect some other economics departments face similar constraints. To the extent existing master’s programs do not expand to meet the demand, it makes sense for additional departments to set up master’s programs.

Conclusion: My main piece of advice to economics departments thinking of setting up a terminal master’s program in economics is to consider the University of Michigan’s low-overhead model of running its MAE program. This is not just a matter of money. Staffing requires also finding faculty who meet our high standards. So programs that rely on larger increments of faculty time are likely to run into staffing headaches that go beyond just needing to pay the salaries.

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It actually takes people coming along and saying ‘That’s not so good.’ Those are the people that elevate you artistically and creatively. So the ‘No’ can be a really beneficial thing for artists.
Keith Urban, on American Idol (during the episode for the 13th season auditions in Detroit, aired January 22, 2014)

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John Stuart Mill: Against Enforced Moderation


image source

I have always thought of moderation as a good thing, but John Stuart Mill is willing to take the contrary position and argue against moderation if moderation is imposed by someone else. Here is what he says in On Liberty, Chapter III: “Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being,” paragraph 15:

There is one characteristic of the present direction of public opinion, peculiarly calculated to make it intolerant of any marked demonstration of individuality. The general average of mankind are not only moderate in intellect, but also moderate in inclinations: they have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have, and class all such with the wild and intemperate whom they are accustomed to look down upon. Now, in addition to this fact which is general, we have only to suppose that a strong movement has set in towards the improvement of morals, and it is evident what we have to expect. In these days such a movement has set in; much has actually been effected in the way of increased regularity of conduct, and discouragement of excesses; and there is a philanthropic spirit abroad, for the exercise of which there is no more inviting field than the moral and prudential improvement of our fellow-creatures. These tendencies of the times cause the public to be more disposed than at most former periods to prescribe general rules of conduct, and endeavour to make every one conform to the approved standard. And that standard, express or tacit, is to desire nothing strongly. Its ideal of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.

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Chenrui Gao: It’s Time to Let Direct Selling Disrupt Our Expensive System of Car Dealerships


Tesla Roadster

I am very proud of the writing of the students in my “Monetary and Financial Theory” class. I ask them to write three blog posts a week. Here is a great one, from Chenrui Gao:


After a long period of fruitless lobbying efforts, Tesla Motor, a public electric car manufacturer, decidee to stop selling its luxury vehicles in New Jersey because the state doesn’t allow it to sell cars directly to consumers. Besides Texas and Arizona, the New Jersey government stands firmly with the dealers and made itself the third state to ban direct sales. Tesla’s mistrust of dealers and its strong faith in directing selling motivates its defense for manufacturer sales. However, dealers afraid that the directing selling could spread to other manufacturers are resisting Tesla’s plan resolutely. The heated discussion between the manufacturer and the state government once again brings back the issue of whether manufacturer sales should be banned or not. I want to argue that manufacturer sales should become an available option because it could benefit both manufactures and consumers.

First of all, manufacturer sales could become a very effective cost-cutting measure. If the manufacturers could avoid the cost of distributing cars to dealers all over the country and accept orders direct from consumers, the vehicle price could be significantly lower. Research by Gerald Bodisch indicates that the cost of the auto distribution system in the United States averages up to 30 percent of the car price. We know form the last financial crisis that General Motors and Chrysler suffered a lot and received 17.4 billion dollars in loans under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. They need effective plans to improve their financial performance and earn more profit. These companies could cut distribution costs by reducing the number of dealers from 6200 to 4100. Also, the build-to-order model could save much of the money spent on storage for products, adding to profitability. According to other research, the total value of new car inventory held by 20700 car dealerships in 2008 was about 100 billion dollars and the annual carrying cost of that inventory was estimated as 890 million dollars. GM started to use this method to produce Celta in Brazil eight years ago and now the Celta is one of the sales leaders in the local market.

Moreover, sometimes it is necessary to let manufactures sell their products directly so that the consumers can have better service. For example, some high-tech vehicle manufacturers like Tesla would do better at explaining their products than dealers who barely know about the functions by studying the instructions themselves.

Some might argue that the Auto Franchise System enforced by most of the states historically benefits manufactures because it helps them focus on developing and producing cars. And they might say dealers do better at assessing and fostering consumer demand than manufactures. However, those arguments assume that the production of a type of vehicle large-scale and that the demand for them is enormous, otherwise a national-wide distribution of dealers is just a faster way to increase costs. The emerging market of electric vehicles is still in its infant stage, with manufacturers Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt and Tesla all fairly new to electric cars. They need more flexible ways to lower costs and expand the market.

Although the Auto Franchise System may make sense in some situations, manufacturers should be allowed to use another distribution system when that fits the product better. 


Chenrui Gao

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Will the ECB Go Negative?


Photo of the European Central Bank from Wikimedia

On Wednesday (March 26, 2014), the Wall Street Journal had a remarkable news article by Brian Blackstone reporting on how the European Central Bank might be getting more serious about the idea of negative interest rates: "ECB Mulls Bolder Moves to Guard Against Low Inflation: Officials Indicate They Will Consider Negative Interest Rates, Asset Purchases." Here are the key passages: 

  1. "We haven’t exhausted our maneuvering room" on interest rates, Bank of Finland Governor Erkki Liikanen, told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in Helsinki. … Asked what tools the ECB has remaining, Mr. Liikanen cited a negative deposit rate as well as additional loans to banks and asset purchases.
  2. Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, in an interview with news agency MNI, didn’t rule out large-scale asset purchases, known as quantitative easing, as a possibility. He also raised the option of negative deposit rates, though he said he wasn’t talking about any imminent decision.
  3. Mr. Draghi was less specific Tuesday on what the central bank might do. But in a speech in Paris, he sought to underscore the bank’s resolve in fighting excessively low inflation, which weakens consumer spending, business profits and investment. “We will do what is needed to maintain price stability,” …

    [Mr. Draghi’s] comment was reminiscent of his July 2012 pledge to do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro together. That remark triggered a lasting rally in government bond markets in southern Europe. The ECB didn’t even have to purchase any government bonds—Mr. Draghi’s words were enough.

  4. Faced with a negative, or penalty, rate for parking funds at the ECB, commercial banks might instead lend their excess funds to other financial institutions, lowering short-term borrowing costs. It could also make euro-denominated assets less attractive to global investors, taking some of the froth off the value of the euro, and thereby boosting exports and inflation.

    One potential downside is that banks might pass along the added costs to customers by raising the interest rates they charge for loans. But Mr. Liikanen signaled he doesn’t think a negative deposit rate would generate unwanted side effects. “The question of negative deposit rates, in my mind, isn’t any longer a controversial issue,” he said.

  5. "The perception has been that [ECB officials] talk about it but won’t do it. I think they’re closer [to making the deposit rate negative] than has been perceived," said Ken Wattret, economist at BNP Paribas.

The next day (yesterday), Brian Blackstone had another article on the same topic: "ECB Faces Uncharted Waters With Negative Deposit Rate Move Could Encourage Lending and Weaken Euro, Bolstering Exports." One of the key worries discussed in the article is this: 

Critics say negative rates could weaken the already fragile European banking industry by sapping its profits.

"The banks that would suffer the most are those ones with lower profitability," said Alberto Gallo, head of European credit research at Royal Bank of Scotland. That includes small banks in Cyprus and Slovenia, Italian banks and some German Landesbanken, or public banks co-owned by the savings banks and regional governments, he added.

Banks also may pay less interest to savers and could raise the rates they charge on private loans to recoup their costs.

Here let me say something I say in all of my talks at central banks and their regional affiliates. Once the paper currency interest rate becomes something the central bank can choose, as in what I have proposed (see for example “How to Set the Exchange Rate Between Paper Currency and Electronic Money”) all 4 key interest rates under the central banks control can be moved up and down in tandem:

  1. The target rate (fed funds rate in the US)
  2. The lending rate (discount rate in the US)
  3. The interest rate on reserves or on excess reserves
  4. The paper currency interest rate. 

With all four rates moving up and down in tandem, the spreads between them that matter for bank profits can be kept at normal levels. In particular, reductions in the paper currency interest rate would make it possible for banks to reduce the deposit rates they pay enough that they can make profits even if the rates banks earn on loans are very low, even possibly negative. 

Note also that when people say that the demand by borrowers is low, that is at a zero or positive interest rate. At a low enough interest rate, I guarantee that the demand for loans would be high.  

By the way, I am headed to the European Central Bank this July to explain the details of implementing negative paper currency interest rates along with other negative rates. For modest negative paper currency interest rates, a time-varying deposit fee (on net paper currency deposits by banks bringing paper currency to or withdrawing paper currency from the central bank) should be sufficient to do the trick, even without the other measures I have talked about. I would be truly delighted to have Mario Draghi attend my seminar.   

Update, April 3, 2014: Brian Blackstone and Todd Buell reported on April 3 that the ECB’s discussion of negative interest rateshas the imprimatur of the ECB’s President Mario Draghi:

President Mario Draghi's revelation that the central bank had discussed negative interest rates and large-scale bond purchases—if needed to keep persistently low inflation from undermining growth—caught financial markets by surprise. …

Mr. Draghi said officials had discussed asset purchases, known as quantitative easing, as well as setting a negative rate on bank deposits parked at the ECB—moves that could help bolster the economic recovery and push up prices. The annual inflation rate in the euro zone is just 0.5%, far below the bank’s target of just under 2%. …

The ECB is “resolute” in its determination to keep its easy-money policies in place, he said, and “to act swiftly if required.”

Brian and Todd have this description of the negative interest rate being contemplated:

A negative deposit rate—it is currently zero—would force financial institutions to pay to park their excess funds at the ECB, which may encourage them to lend more to the private sector. Denmark has deployed negative rates since 2012, but it would be largely unchartered territory for a major central bank such as the ECB.

In the US, this would be called a negative interest rate on excess reserves. For negative interest rates to work best, it is important that other key interest rates also go negative, particularly the paper currency interest rate. 

Note: For more details on how to implement negative rates well, see the links collected in "How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide." 

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