Central bankers around the world have been toying with the idea of going into negative territory with interest rates. The economic indicators influencing their decision tend to focus on the inflation rate and the amount of spare capacity – output gaps. Some research has suggested that interest rates needed to go as low as -6.5% (UK in 2013) and -3% ( USA in 2014) to stimulate growth.
Negative interest rates does encourage people to take money out of their bank accounts and store in safe deposit boxes or under the mattress, the latter being vulnerable to theft. This makes the process of buying goods/services difficult – do you carry a lot of cash as electronic transfer is no longer used? Additionally online transactions would disappear with people holding cash. According to The Economist central bankers face three important questions.
The technical feasibility – rates could be pushed lower by getting rid of high-denomination banknotes and impose fees on large transfers might raise the cost of hoarding cash by enough to allow rates to be cut further.
Hurting growth – negative interest rates can weaken demand rather than boosting it. As commercial banks have to keep reserves at the central bank negative interest rates means that they are losing money. However the commercial banks may not want to pass these costs onto customers so their profits are squeezed. This is especially a concern for less profitable banks that may limit their lending and ultimately investment and growth.
Is it worth it? Is the easing of interest rates into negative territory enough to make the difference between a strong recovery or a weak one. Also will people still borrow when rates are negative. Even with the low rates today borrowing levels are not significant and even if rates went negative would it make any difference? Consumers are worried about taking on debt with job security a concern therefore borrowing is not a top priority.
In order to kick start the economy there needs to be more fiscal expansion. Giving people money with a wage subsidy or just crediting their bank accounts would be more effective in achieving more economic activity.
Source: The Economist – Should the Fed cut rates below zero? 23rd May 2020
Below is a link to a very good interview with Corin Dann and Don Brash this morning on National Radio’s ‘Morning Report’. Former Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash says that the major Central Banks need to act together and reduce interest rates to offset the impact of Covid-19. The Central Banks he refers to are: US Fed, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. Good discussion of the impact of the NZ dollar on trade and the fact that just the past month in New Zealand, the virus may have cost as much as $300 million in lost exports to China. Worth a listen
Video from CNBC looking at why central banks became independent and if it still should be the case – very informative and they use the Phillips Curve in their explanation. WIth the ongoing inflation problems in the 1970’s and 80’s it was thought that giving central banks independence of government control should be implemented. It was argued that policy makers would struggle to convince the public they were serious about containing inflation if politicians retained a say on setting interest rates. In 1989 New Zealand become the first country to introduce an independent bank with the 1989 – Reserve Bank Act. The mandate was to keep inflation between 0-2% but later changed to 1-3%.
With the GFC in 2008 it was central banks who slashed interest rates and implemented several rounds of quantitative easing to stimulate demand. However the GFC could have been prevented if central banks intervened to stop the biggest asset-bubble in history instead of focusing purely on keeping inflation low. Furthermore the European Central Bank were slow to act and the recovery was stymied. The fact that Germany is under the threat of deflation means that the ECB have cut interest into negative territory and are relaunch another round of quantitative easing – they are running out of options. Economists are focusing on fiscal stimulus – tax cuts and government spending. Therefore monetary and fiscal policy should be working together. According to Larry Elliott of The Guardian. central bank independence is a product of the neoliberal Chicago school of economics and aims to advance neoliberal interests. More specifically, workers like high employment because in those circumstances it is easier to bid up pay.
Very good video from Project Syndicate looking at the recovery of the US economy and if it is sustainable. Also was Trump responsible for the growth or Obama? Maybe Janet Yellen and central bankers with such low interest rates for a long period of time. However if there is another downturn do governments have the tools to grow the economy again? It seems that central banks have run out of ammunition i.e. no room to cut interest rates further. There is agreement that the levels of employment are not sustainable in the future and the focus should be on assisting low wage work and help people prepare for and keep work- ‘reward work’.
Features Nobel laureates Angus Deaton and Edmund Phelps, along with Barry Eichengreen,
From the Espresso app by The Economist I came across a useful graph showing inflation figures in emerging economies. I used this with my NCEA Level 2 class when we discussed inflation and how if the inflation rate is below the target rate there may be room to loosen monetary policy and cut interest rates. This should stimulate demand in the economy and increase output and employment.
In America investors are experiencing the novelty of an inflation scare. But in many emerging economies, including several of the biggest, price pressures are at unusual lows. In China and Indonesia inflation is below target. In Brazil, for the first time this century, it has remained under 3% for seven straight months. And in Russia, where the central bank is meeting today, prices are rising at their slowest pace since the fall of the Soviet Union. This lack of inflationary pressure gives central bankers some welcome room for monetary manoeuvre. Even if America’s Federal Reserve turns hawkish, emerging markets need not slavishly follow its lead.
The Economist had an article in its Finance and Economics section on the fact that after record low interest rates and extended quantitative easing global inflation seems stubbornly low – see graph. In order to explain this you need to consider the model that central banks use to explain inflation. There are three elements to this model:
1. The price of imports. As the price of imports increase whether it is raw materials or finished products, the price of local goods become more expensive which increase the general price level. Also if a country finds that its exchange rate depreciates the price of imports rises. Oil is a very inelastic import and with a barrel of oil below $30 in 2016 there was little pressure on the CPI. Where inflation has been higher is in those countries that have withdrawn price subsidies and also had sharply falling currencies – Argentina 24% and Egypt 32%.
2. Public Expectations. In recent years more attention has been paid to the psychological effects which rising prices have on people’s behaviour. The various groups which make up the economy, acting in their own self-interest, will actually cause inflation to rise faster than otherwise would be the case if they believe rising prices are set to continue.
Workers, who have tended to get wage rises to ‘catch up’ with previous price increases, will attempt to gain a little extra compensate them for the expected further inflation, especially if they cannot negotiate wage increases for another year. Consumers, in belief that prices will keep rising, buy now to beat the price rises, but this extra buying adds to demand pressures on prices. In a country such as New Zealand’s before the 1990’s, with the absence of competition in many sectors of the economy, this behaviour reinforces inflationary pressures. ‘Breaking the inflationary cycle’ is an important part of permanently reducing inflation. If people believe prices will remain stable, they won’t, for example, buy land and property as a speculation to protect themselves. In Japan firms and employees have become conditioned to expect a lower rate of inflation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has called for companies to raise wages by 3% to try and kick start inflation.
3. Capacity pressures. This refers to how much ‘slack’ there is in the economy or the ability to increase total output. If capacity pressures are tight that means an economy will find it difficult to increase output so there will be more pressure on prices as goods become more scarce. Unemployment is the most used gauge to measure the slack in the economy and as the economy approached full employment the scarcity of workers should push up the price pf labour – wages. With increasing costs for the firm it is usual for them to increase their prices for the consumer and therefore increasing the CPI. However many labour markets around the world (especially Japan and the USA) have been very tight but there is little sign of inflation. This assumes that the Phillips curve (trade-off between inflation and unemployment) has become less steep. Research by Olivier Blanchard found that a drop in the unemployment rate in the US has less than a third as much power to raise inflation as it did in the mid 1970’s.
This flatter Phillips curve suggests that the cost for central banks in higher inflation of delaying interest-rate rises is rather low. See graph below showing New Zealand’s Phillips Curve
The FT had an excellent article back in April last year that covered many concepts which are a part of Unit 4 of the CIE A2 Economics course. It covers the liquidity trap, deflation, MV=PT, circular flow, Monetary Policy, Quantitative Easing etc.
The article focuses on the liquidity trap with Monetary Policy being the favoured policy of central banks. However by pushing rates into negative territory they are actually encouraging a deflationary environment, stronger currencies and slower growth. The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.
Normally lower interest rates lead to:
savers spending more
capital being moved into riskier investments
cheaper borrowing costs for business and consumers
a weaker currency which encourages exports
But when interest rates go negative the speed at which money goes around the circular flow (Velocity of Circulation) slows which adds to deflationary problems. Policymakers pump more money into the circular flow to try to stimulate growth but as price fall consumer delay purchases, reducing consumption and growth.
The article concludes by saying Monetary Policy addresses cyclical economic problems, not structural ones. Click below to read the article.
Part of the excellent Al Jazeera documentary series about Russia, which addresses the problems facing many Russians today. The global economic crisis, conflicts with neighbouring countries and the drop in oil prices all played their part in the demise of the Russian people. There is a very good interview with the former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenk who held the position during Yelstin’s reign. He explains very simply how you grow your economy and that there must be money in the banks so that companies can borrow and invest. Buying US Treasury Bills was loaning money to the US and paying for their deficit. Meanwhile the infrastructure and public services declined rapidly causing a lot of anguish amongst the people. You can’t suddenly jump from a socialist system into the free market. Worth a look.
Another good video from Paul Solman of PBS ‘Making Sense of Financial News’.
In his new book, “The End of Alchemy,” Mervyn King still worries that the world banking system hasn’t reformed itself, eight years after its excesses led to collapse. He states that it’s easy with hindsight to look back and say that regulations turned out to be inadequate as mortgage lending was riskier than was thought. Furthermore, you are of the belief that the system works and it takes an event like the GFC to discover that it actually doesn’t.
Paul Solman asks the question that a large part of the problem that caused the GFC was the Bank of England and the US Fed were not able to keep up with the financial innovation that was going on in both of these countries. King refutes this by saying that there were two issues that were prevalent before the GFC:
Low interest rates around the world led to rising asset prices and trading looked very profitable.
Leverage of the banking system rose very sharply – Leverage, meaning the ratio of the bank’s own money to the money it borrows in the form deposits or short-term loans.
Central banks exist to be lenders of last resort. Problem: Too big to fail. And that’s what began happening in England, just like America, in the ’80s and ’90s. There needs to be something much more robust and much more simple to prevent the same problem from happening again. King makes two proposals:
Banks insure themselves against catastrophe by making enough safe, secure loans so they have assets of real value to pledge to the Central Bank if they need a cash infusion in a hurry.
Force the banks to keep enough cash on hand to cover loans gone bad as during the crisis banks didn’t have enough equity finance to absorb losses without defaulting on the loans which banks have taken out, whether from other bits of the financial sector or from you and I as depositors.
He finally states that the Brexit vote doesn’t make any significant difference to the risks facing the global banking system. There were and are significant risks in that system because of the potential fragility of our banks, and because of the state of the world economy.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the global economy was battling the menace of stagflation – high inflation and high unemployment. In order to counteract this, monetary policy was seen as responsible for controlling the inflation rate through the adoption of targeting. The New Zealand government was the first country to introduce this through the Reserve Bank Act 1989 which gave the responsibility of the central bank to keep inflation between 0-2% (later changed to 1-3%). Monetary policy should therefore play the lead role in stabilizing inflation and unemployment with fiscal policy playing a supporting role with automatic stabilisers – economic stimulus during economic downturns and economic contractions during high growth periods. Fiscal policy is therefore focused on long term objectives such as efficiency and equity.
In the post financial crisis world the usefulness of monetary policy is dubious. The natural rate of interest has now dropped to historical low levels. The natural rate of interest being a rate which is neither expansionary or contractionary. The issue for the central banks is how to bring about a stable inflation rate when the natural rate of interest is so low.
Historical Natural Rates of Interest
In the 1990’s the natural rate of interest globally was approximately between 2.5% and 3.5% but by 2007 these rates had decreased to between 2 – 2.5% – see graph. By 2015 the rate had dropped sharply and as can be seen from the graph near zero in the USA and below zero in the case of the euro zone. The reasons for this decline in the natural rate were related to the global supply and demand for funds:
Shifting demographics and the ageing populations
Slower trend productivity and economic growth
Emerging markets seeking large reserves of safe assets
Integration of savings-rich China into the global economy
Global savings glut in general
Therefore the expected low natural rate of interest is set to prevail when the economy is at full capacity and the stance of monetary policy in neutral. However this lower rate means that conventional monetary has less ammunition to influence the economy and this will mean a greater reliance and other unconventional instruments – negative interest rates. In this new environment recessions will tend to be more severe and last longer and the risks of low inflation will be more likely.
Future strategies by to avoid deeper recessions.
Governments and central banks need to be a lot more creative in coping with the low natural rate environment. Fiscal policy could be used in conjunction with monetary policy with the aim of raising the natural rate. Therefore long-term investments in education, public and private capital, and research and development could be more beneficial. More predictable automatic stabilisers could be introduced that support the economy during boom and slump periods. Additionally unemployment benefit and income tax rates could be linked to the unemployment rate. The reality is that monetary policy by itself is not enough especially as the natural rate of interest and the inflation rate are so low. What can be done:
The Central Bank would pursue a higher inflation target so therefore experiencing a high natural rate of interest which leaves more room to cut to stimulate demand. The logic of this approach argues that a 1% increase in the inflation target would offset the harmful effects of an equal-sized decline in the natural rate
Inflationary targeting could be replaced by a flexible price-level of nominal GDP, rather than the inflation rate.
Monetary policy can only do so much but with global interest rates at approximately zero there needs to be the support of the politicians to enlist a much more stimulatory fiscal policy. Monetary policy has run out of ammunition and we cannot rely on central banks to fight recessions. However a less politicised fiscal policy, which is free to act immediately, has the ammunition to revive the economy.
Monetary Policy in a low R-star World – FRBSF Economic Letter
The Economist: September 24th 2016 – The low-rate world