NEW YORK – Monetary policy has become increasingly unconventional in the last six years, with central banks implementing zero-interest-rate policies, quantitative easing, credit easing, forward guidance, and unlimited exchange-rate intervention. But now we have come to the most unconventional policy tool of them all: negative nominal interest rates.
Such rates currently prevail in the eurozone, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden. And it is not just short-term policy rates that are now negative in nominal terms: about $3 trillion of assets in Europe and Japan, at maturities as long as ten years (in the case of Swiss government bonds), now have negative interest rates.
At first blush, this seems absurd: Why would anyone want to lend money for a negative nominal return when they could simply hold on to the cash and at least not lose in nominal terms?
In fact, investors have long accepted real (inflation-adjusted) negative returns. When you hold a checking or current account in your bank at a zero interest rate – as most people do in advanced economies – the real return is negative (the nominal zero return minus inflation): a year from now, your cash balances buy you less goods than they do today. And if you consider the fees that many banks impose on these accounts, the effective nominal return was already negative even before central banks went for negative nominal rates.
In other words, negative nominal rates merely make your return more negative than it already was. Investors accept negative returns for the convenience of holding cash balances, so, in a sense, there is nothing new about negative nominal interest rates.
Moreover, if deflation were to become entrenched in the eurozone and other parts of the world, a negative nominal return could be associated with a positive real return. That has been the story for the last 20 years in Japan, owing to persistent deflation and near-zero interest rates on many assets.
One still might think that it makes sense to hold cash directly, rather than holding an asset with a negative return. But holding cash can be risky, as Greek savers, worried about the safety of their bank deposits, learned after stuffing it into their mattresses and walls: the number of armed home robberies rose sharply, and some cash was devoured by rodents. So, if you include the costs of holding cash safely – and include the benefits of check writing – it makes sense to accept a negative return.
(c) Project Syndicate