Tim Sablik: Subzero Interest

Link to the article on the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Econ Focus website

Tim Sablik interviewed me for a well-researched and well-written article “Subzero Interest” that he wrote for the Richmond Fed’s Econ Focus website. The entire article is a great piece for getting background on negative interest rates. As teasers, let me quote just the passages quoting me and a couple of very interesting passages quoting Marvin Goodfriend: 

Miles 1: “Cutting interest rates into negative territory stimulates the economy in exactly the ways that cutting interest rates stimulates the economy in positive territory, with very few difference,” says Miles Kimball, an economics professor at the University of Michigan who has advocated in favor of negative rate policy.

Miles 2: It may not be necessary to eliminate cash completely to achieve negative rates, however. Kimball has argued central banks could establish an exchange rate between physical currency and electronic currency at the cash window. For example, if the Fed wanted to adopt interest rates of negative 4 percent, the exchange rate for physical currency in terms of electronic currency would depreciate at 4 percent per year. Banks and financial markets would then pass along the nega­tive rates on physical currency as well as electronic accounts to the rest of the economy. To alleviate banks’ concerns about losing retail depositors, Kimball has said the Fed could reduce banks’ payments to the Fed of negative interest on reserves in order to subsidize their provision of zero interest rates to small-value bank accounts. This would shield most retail depositors from the effects of negative rates.

Additionally, he argues that the depreciation of paper currency would likely be invisible in most everyday trans­actions, at least to a point. “If you go to the grocery store now where they accept both credit cards and cash, they’re likely to accept both payments at par,” says Kimball. That’s despite the fact that both payment methods are not equal for merchants. They pay a fee to card networks for card transactions but don’t typically pass that charge on to cus­tomers. As a result, Kimball suspects many merchants would be willing to accept the “fee” of a small depreciation of cash without passing it on to customers.

“If merchants are still accepting cash at par at the store and you’re still getting a zero interest rate at your local bank, what do negative interest rates in the financial markets look like to you?” he says. “On things like car loans, they just look like lower positive rates. Most people wouldn’t personally see any negative interest rates.”

Marvin 1: In the long run, the likelihood that most countries move to all-electronic currency is quite high, Goodfriend argues. “If you give me a long time horizon of 150 or 200 years, I’d be absolutely shocked if societies did not move to eliminate the zero lower bound by making currency electronic,” says Goodfriend. “As society gets increasingly digitized, the inconvenience and costs of using paper currency will become glaringly high.”

Goodfriend also notes that while holders of digital cur­rency may lose money in times of negative rates, they could actually earn a positive return when rates are above zero, something paper money currently lacks. “If we expect that interest rates are going to be positive most of the time, then for most of the imaginable future, people are going to bene­fit from earning interest on currency.”

Marvin 2: This is why communication from central banks is criti­cal with these policies, says Goodfriend. “Any unorthodox move is complicated if the public has not been prepared for it. In that case, the central bank cannot be sure that these things will work as intended,” he says. But Goodfriend says most of the costs cited by critics of negative rates do not kick in only once rates fall below zero — they apply to all rate cuts. Cutting rates within positive territory also hurts savers and lessens the burden of public debt.

Still, negative rates represent largely uncharted territory for economists and policymakers, and many unanswered questions remain. The good news for monetary policymak­ers at the Fed and elsewhere is that they can wait and see how the experiments in Europe and Japan play out before making any decisions on negative rates. If it works, Goodfriend says he wouldn’t be surprised to see negative rate policy spread.

“If you’re standing around a pool and you don’t know what the temperature of the water is,” he says, “it’s a whole lot easier to jump in if somebody else goes first and tells you the water’s fine.”