Will the ECB Go Negative?

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.”