Of Interest

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The European Central Bank goes negative on interest rates: Negativity

Negativity

The European Central Bank goes negative on interest rates:
The European Central Bank broke new ground last week; it became the first of the monetary superpowers to cut its deposit rate below zero. This is truly desperate stuff. That nearly six years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Europe is still belatedly trying to address the twin afflictions of deflation and economic depression tells you as much about the political paralysis that grips the euro area as about the severity of the crisis.

These are not uncharted waters. Denmark and Sweden have experimented with negative nominal interest rates, and in any case, the difference between minus 0.1 per cent and the pre-existing deposit rate of zero is so marginal as to be almost irrelevant. Certainly, it’s hard to see why, beyond symbolism, it would make much difference to the eurozone’s beleaguered economies, even combined with other measures announced by the ECB on Thursday to ease credit conditions.

None the less, it is quite something when bankers actually have to pay a fee for the privilege of parking their money with the central bank, which is the effect of a negative deposit rate.
It's important to keep in mind that this is the interest rate paid to bankers by the central bank rather than the interest rate paid to depositors by the banks. Remember, the banks are just borrowing those loan-deposits from the public, so they will still compete on the interest rates they pay. There is a relationship between the two interest rates, of course, but it is not a fixed ratio. Depositors have to worry about bail-ins and manufactured fees more than they have to worry about the interest rates on their savings account going negative.

However, it is indicative of the strong grip that Keynesian economics still has on the central bankers. They are still trying to figure out the best way to fine-tune the magic financial remote for the economy, little realizing that they are the equivalent of children pressing buttons on an outdated remote for a cathode ray tube television, with no batteries in it, pointing it at a flatscreen and wondering why it doesn't work.

Everything revolves around the concept of the demand gap, and the idea that more liquidity will cause people to spend more. But credit money requires someone, somewhere, to borrow something and while one can print money, one can't print borrowers. As Americans learned in 2008, even if one creates a new class of borrowers by loosening the standards, they tend to fall behind on their payments and default so rapidly that it would be better to have never loaned them money in the first place.

As usual, the central bank is belatedly reacting to events; it isn't controlling them. This is merely another indication - not proof, but an indication - that the global economy is in a deflationary scenario rather than the inflationary one most people tend to assume. The takeaway: don't add to your debt with the assumption you'll be able to pay it off with cheaper currency.

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