Imagine a bank that pays negative interest. Depositors are actually charged to keep their money in an account. Crazy as it sounds, several of Europe’s central banks have cut key interest rates below zero and kept them there for more than a year. Now Japan is trying it, too. For some, it’s a bid to reinvigorate an economy with other options exhausted. Others want to push foreigners to move their money somewhere else. Either way, it’s an unorthodox choice that has distorted financial markets and triggered warnings that the strategy could backfire. If negative interest rates work, however, they may mark the start of a new era for the world’s central banks.
The Bank of Japan surprised markets by adopting negative interest rates in January, more than a year and a half after the European Central Bank became the first major institution of its kind to venture below zero. With other options to stimulate the economy limited, more policy makers are willing to test the technique. They acknowledge that sub-zero rates can crimp the ability of banks to make money or lead them to take additional risks in search of profit. The ECB cut rates again March 10, charging banks 0.4 percent to hold their cash overnight. At the same time, it offered a premium to banks that borrow in order to extend more loans. Sweden also has negative rates,Denmark is using them to protect its currency’s peg to the euro and last year Switzerland moved its deposit rate below zero for the first time since the 1970s. Janet Yellen, the U.S. Federal Reserve chair, said in November that a change in economic circumstances could put negative rates “on the table” in the U.S. Since central banks provide a benchmark for all borrowing costs, negative rates spread to a range of fixed-income securities. By February, more than $7 trillion of government bonds worldwide offered yields below zero. That means investors buying bonds and holding to maturity won’t get all their money back. While most banks have been reluctant to pass on negative rates for fear of losing customers, a few began to charge large depositors.
Negative interest rates are an act of desperation, a signal that traditional policy options have proved ineffective and new limits need to be explored. They punish banks that hoard cash instead ofextending loans to businesses or to weaker lenders. Rates below zero have never been used before in an economy as large as the euro area. While it’s still too early to tell if they will work, ECB President Mario Draghi said in January 2016 that there are “no limits” on what he will do to meet his mandate. Europe’s central bank chose to experiment with negative rates before turning to a bond-buying program like those used in the U.S. and Japan. Policy makers in both Europe and Japan are trying to prevent a slide back into deflation, or a spiral of falling prices that could derail the economic recovery. The euro zone is also grappling with a shortage of credit and unemployment is only slowly receding from its highest level since the currency bloc was formed in 1999.
In theory, interest rates below zero should reduce borrowing costs for companies and households, driving demand for loans. In practice, there’s a risk that the policy might do more harm than good. If banks make more customers pay to hold their money, cash may go under the mattress instead, robbing lenders of a crucial source of funding. But there’s mounting concern that when banks absorb the cost of negative rates themselves, that squeezes the profit margin between their lending and deposit rates, and might make them even less willing to lend. The Bank for International Settlements warned in a March 2016report of “great uncertainty” if rates stay negative for a prolonged period. And if more and more central banks use negative rates as a stimulus tool, there’s concern the policy might ultimately lead to acurrency war of competitive devaluations.