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 Jan. 29 by adopting a negative interest-rate strategy. The move came 1 1/2 years after the European Central Bank became the first major central bank to venture below zero. With the fallout limited so far, policy makers are more willing to accept sub-zero rates. The ECB cut a key rate further into negative territory Dec. 3, even though President Mario Draghi earlier said it had hit the “lower bound.” It now charges banks 0.3 percent to hold their cash overnight. Sweden also has negative rates, Denmark used them to protect its currency’s peg to the euro and Switzerland moved its deposit rate below zero for the first time since the 1970s. Since central banks provide a benchmark for all borrowing costs, negative rates spread to a range of fixed-income securities. By the end of 2015, about a third of the debt issued by euro zone governments had negative yields. That means investors holding to maturity won’t get all their money back. Banks have been reluctant to pass on negative rates for fear of losing customers, though Julius Baer began to charge large depositors.
Negative interest rates are a sign 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, 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 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 near 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. Janet Yellen, the U.S. Federal Reserve chair, said at her confirmation hearing in November 2013 that even a deposit rate that’s positive but close to zero could disrupt the money markets that help fund financial institutions. Two years later, she said that a change in economic circumstances could put negative rates “on the table” in the U.S. Deutsche Bank economists note that negative rates haven’t sparked the bank runs or cash hoarding some had feared, in part because banks haven’t passed them on to their customers. But there’s still a worry that when banks absorb the cost themselves, it squeezes the profit margin between their lending and deposit rates, and might make them even less willing to lend. Ever-lower rates also fuel concern that countries are engaged in a currency war of competitive devaluations.