Negative Nominal Interest Rates?

A number of economists and economics writers have considered the possibility of allowing the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates below zero in order to make holding onto money costlier and encouraging individuals and firms to spend, spend, spend.

Miles Kimball details one such plan:

The US Federal Reserve’s new determination to keep buying mortgage-backed securities until the economy gets better, better known as quantitative easing, is controversial. Although a few commentators don’t think the economy needs any more stimulus, many others are unnerved because the Fed is using untested tools. (For example, see Michael Snyder’s collection of “10 Shocking Quotes About What QE3 Is Going To Do To America.”) Normally the Fed simply lowers short-term interest rates (and in particular the federal funds rate at which banks lend to each other overnight) by purchasing three-month Treasury bills. But it has basically hit the floor on the federal funds rate. If the Fed could lower the federal funds rate as far as chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues wanted, it would be much less controversial. The monetary policy cognoscenti would be comfortable with a tool they know well, and those who don’t understand monetary policy as well would be more likely to trust that the Fed knew what it was doing. By contrast, buying large quantities of long-term government bonds or mortgage-backed securities is seen as exotic and threatening by monetary policy outsiders; and it gives monetary policy insiders the uneasy feeling that they don’t know their footing and could fall into some unexpected crevasse at any time.

So why can’t the Fed just lower the federal funds rate further? The problem may surprise you: it is those green pieces of paper in your wallet. Because they earn an interest rate of zero, no one is willing to lend at an interest rate more than a hair below zero. In Denmark, the central bank actually set the interest rate to negative -.2 % per year toward the end of August this year, which people might be willing to accept for the convenience of a certificate of deposit instead of a pile of currency, but it would be hard to go much lower before people did prefer a pile of currency. Let me make this concrete. In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.) That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory.  But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.  The fact that people could store paper money and get an interest rate of zero, minus storage costs, has deterred the Fed from bothering to lower the interest rate a bit more and forcing them to store paper money to get the best rate (as Denmark’s central bank may cause people to do).

The bottom line is that all we have to do to give the Fed (and other central banks) unlimited power to lower short-term interest rates is to demote paper currency from its role as a yardstick for prices and other economic values—what economists call the “unit of account” function of money. Paper currency could still continue to exist, but prices would be set in terms of electronic dollars (or abroad, electronic euros or yen), with paper dollars potentially being exchanged at a discount compared to electronic dollars. More and more, people use some form of electronic payment already, with debit cards and credit cards, so this wouldn’t be such a big change. It would be a little less convenient for those who insisted on continuing to use currency, but even there, it would just be a matter of figuring out with a pocket calculator how many extra paper dollars it would take to make up for the fact that each one was worth less than an electronic dollar. That’s it, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the Fed or any other central bank ever again seeming relatively powerless in the face of a long slump.

First of all, I question the feasibility of even producing a negative rate of interest, even via electronic currency. Electronic currency has practically zero storage costs. What is to stop offshore or black market banking entities offering a non-negative interest rate? After all, it is not hard to offer a higher-than-negative rate of interest for the privilege of holding (and leveraging) currency. A true negative interest rate environment may prove as unattainable as division by zero.

But assuming that such a thing is achievable, I think that a negative rate of interest will completely undermine the entire economic system in clear and visible ways that I shall discuss below (“white swans”), and probably also — because such a system has never been tried, and it is a radical departure from the present norms — in unpredictable and emergent ways (“black swans”).

Money has historically had multiple functions; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of purchasing power. To institute a zero interest rate policy is to disable money’s role as a store of purchasing power. But to institute a negative interest rate policy is to reverse money’s role as a store of purchasing power, and turn money into a drain on purchasing power.

Money evolved organically to possess all three of these characteristics, because all three characteristics have been economically important and useful. To try to strip currency of one of its essential functions is to risk the rejection of that currency.

How would I react in the case of negative nominal interest rates? I’d convert into a liquid medium that was not subject to a negative rate of interest. That could be a nonmonetary asset, a foreign currency, a digital currency or a precious metal. I would actively seek ways to opt out of using the negative-yielding currency at all — if I could get by using alternative currencies, digital currencies, barter, then I would.  I would only ever possess a negative-yielding currency for transactions (e.g. taxes) in which the other party insisted upon the negative-yielding currency, and would then only hold it for a minimal period of time. It seems only reasonable that other individuals — seeking to avoid a draining asset — would maximise their utility by rejecting the draining currency whenever and wherever possible.

In Kimball’s theory, this unwillingness to hold currency is supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging productive economic activity and investment. But is that necessarily true? I don’t think so. So long as there are alternative stores of purchasing power, there is no guarantee that this policy would result in a higher rate of  economic activity.

And it will drive economic activity underground. While governments may relish the prospect of higher tax revenues (due to more economic activity becoming electronic, and therefore trackable and traceable), in the present depressionary environment recorded and taxable economic activity could even fall as more economic activity goes underground to avoid negative rates. Increasingly authoritarian measures might be taken — probably at great cost — to encourage citizens into using the negative-yielding legal tender.

Banking would be turned upside down. Lending at a negative rate of interest — and suffering from the likely reality that negative rates discourages deposits — banks would be forced to look to riskier or offshore or black market activities to achieve profits. Even if banks continued to lend at low positive rates, the negative rates of interest offered to depositors would surely lead to a mass depositor exodus (perhaps to offshore or black market banks offering higher rates), probably leading to liquidity crises and banking panics.

As Izabella Kaminska wrote in July:

The simple fact of the matter is that in a negative carry world – or a flat yield environment for that matter  there is no role or purpose for banks because banks are forced into economically destructive practices in order to stay profitable.

Additionally, a negative-yielding environment will result in reduced income for those on a fixed income. One interesting effect of the present zero-interest rate environment is that more elderly people — presumably starved of sufficient retirement income — are returning to the labour force, which is in turn crowding out younger inexperienced workers, who are suffering from very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. A negative-yielding environment would probably exacerbate this effect.

So on the surface, the possibility of negative nominal rates seems deeply problematic.

Japan has spent almost twenty years at the zero bound, in spite of multiple rounds of quantitative easing and stimulus. Yet Japan remains mired in depression. The fact remains that both conventional and unconventional monetary policy has proven ineffective in resuscitating Japanese growth. My hypothesis remains that the real issue is the weight of excessive total debt (Japan’s total debt load remains as precipitously high as ever) and that no amount of rate cuts, quantitative easing or unconventional monetary intervention will prove effective. I hypothesise that a return to growth for a depressionary post-bubble economy requires a substantial chunk of the debt load (and thus future debt service costs) being either liquidated, forgiven or (often very difficult and slow) paid down.

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Can Banking Regulation Prevent Stupidity?

In the wake of J.P. Morgan’s epic speculatory fail a whole lot of commentators are talking about regulation. And yes — this was speculation — if Dimon gets to call these activities “hedging portfolio risk“, then I have the right to go to Vegas, play the Martingale roulette system, and happily call it “hedging portfolio risk” too, because hey — the Martingale system always wins in theory.

From Bloomberg:

The Volcker rule, part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was inspired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It’s supposed to stop federally insured banks from making speculative bets for their own profit — leaving taxpayers to bail them out when things go wrong.

As we have said, banks have both explicit and implicit federal guarantees, so the market doesn’t impose the same discipline on them as, say, hedge funds. For this reason, the Volcker rule should be as airtight as possible.

Proponents of regulation point to the period of relative financial stability between the enactment of Glass-Steagall and its repeal. But let’s not confuse Glass-Steagall with what’s on the table today. It’s a totally different ball game.

To be honest, I think the Volcker rule is extremely unlikely to be effective, mostly because megabanks can bullshit their way around the definitional divide between proprietary trading and hedging. If anything, I think the last few days have proven the ineffectiveness, as opposed to the necessity of the Volcker rule. Definitions are fuzzy enough for this to continue. And whatever is put in place will be loopholed through by teams of Ivy League lawyers. What is the difference between hedging and speculation, for example? In my mind it’s very clear — hedging is betting to counterbalance specific and explicit risks, for example buying puts on a held equity. In the mind of Jamie Dimon, hedging is a fuzzy form of speculative betting to guard against more general externalities. I know that I am technically right, and Dimon is technically wrong, but I am also fairly certain that Dimon and his ilk can bend regulators into accepting his definition.

What we really need is a system that enforced the Volcker principle:

As Matt Yglesias notes:

Once bank lawyers finish finding loopholes in the detailed provisions, whatever they prove to be, the rule will probably have little meaningful impact.

The problem with principles-based regulation in this context is that you might fear that banks will use their political influence to get regulators to engage in a lot of forebearance. The problem with rules-based regulation in this context is that it’s really hard to turn a principle into a rule.

And I fear that nothing short of a return to Glass-Steagall — the explicit and categorical separation of investment and retail banking — will even come close to enforcing the Volcker principle.

Going even further, I am not even sure that Glass-Steagall will assure an end to this kind of hyper-risky activities that lead to crashes and bailouts.

The benefits of the Glass-Steagall era (particularly the high-growth 1950s and 1960s) were not solely derived from banking regulation. America was a very different place. There was a gold exchange standard that limited credit creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity (which as a Bank of England study recently found is correlated with financial and banking stability). But beyond that, America was creditor to the world, and an industrial powerhouse. And I’m sure Paul Krugman would hastily point out that tax revenues on the richest were as high as 90% (although it must be noted that this made no difference whatever for tax revenues). And we should not forget that it was that world that give birth to this one.

Anyone who worked in finance in the decade before Glass-Steagall was repealed knows that prior to Gramm-Leach-Bliley the megabanks just took their hyper-leveraged activities offshore (primarily to London where no such regulations existed). The big problem (at least in my mind) with Glass-Steagall is that it didn’t prevent the financial-industrial complex from gaining the power to loophole and lobby Glass-Steagall out of existence, and incorporate a new regime of hyper-leverage, convoluted shadow banking intermediation, and a multi-quadrillion-dollar derivatives web (and more importantly a taxpayer-funded safety net for when it all goes wrong: heads I win, tails you lose).

I fear that the only answer to the dastardly combination of hyper-risk and huge bailouts is to let the junkies eat dirt the next time the system comes crashing down. You can’t keep bailing out hyper-fragile systems and expect them to just fix themselves. The answer to stupidity is not the moral hazard of bailouts, it is the educational lesson of failure. You screw up, you take more care next time. If you’re bailed out, you just don’t care. Corzine affirms it; Iksil affrims it; Adoboli affirms it. And there will be more names. Which chump is next? If you’re trading for a TBTF bank right now — especially if your trading pattern involves making large bets for small profits (picking up nickels in front of steamrollers) — it could be you. 

I fear that the only effective regulation was that advocated way back before Gramm-Leach-Blilely by Warren G and Nate Dogg:

We regulate any stealing off this property. And we’re damn good too. But you can’t be any geek off [Wall] street, gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn your keep.

In other words, the next time the fragilista algos and arbitrageurs come clawing to the taxpayer looking for a bailout, the taxpayer must kick them off the teat.

UPDATE:

Some commenters on Zero Hedge have made the point that this is not a matter of stupidity so much as it is one of systemic and purposeful looting. Although I see lots of evidence of real stupidity (as I described yesterday), even if I am wrong, I know that to get access to the bailout stream banks have to blow up and put themselves into a liquidity crisis, and even if they think that is an easy way to free cash it’s still pretty stupid because eventually — if not this time then next time — they will end up in bankruptcy court. It would be like someone with diabetes stopping their medication to get attention…

Yglesias Recognises the Death of Capitalism

I have written about it extensively, but it seems like some other commentators — even ones ensconced inside the establishment — are finally getting the point about 2008.

Responding to Bloomberg’s revelation that the Fed shot off trillions of secret zero-interest loans to Too-Big-to-Fail banks, Yglesia concludes:

The government didn’t actually lose any money on these deals. There was no loss of funds or transfer of real economic resources. But as Bloomberg writes “details suggest taxpayers paid a price beyond dollars as the secret funding helped preserve a broken status quo and enabled the biggest banks to grow even bigger.” Capitalism is supposed to have an evolutionary dynamic. Firms with sound business strategies survive and expand. Firms with unsound business strategies shrink and go bust. Consequently, over time the average quality of business strategies is improving. This evolution toward better firms over time is one of the key pillars of our prosperity. If ill-managed firms nonetheless survive, the system is broken in a fundamental way.

Yglesias and others still put a whole lot of value into “saving the system”, though, which is a shame because that is the problem. It’s not just ill-managed firms, it’s a fundamentally broken system. And as MF Global’s failure (not to mention present gross derivatives exposure levels) proves, you can’t mend the system by saving it. You have to replace it with something better, which is exactly what hasn’t happened.

The logical corollary of this is that the government (i.e. We the People) did lose on this — we lost the right to a capitalist economy based on creative destruction, good firms succeeding, and bad firms failing. We lost the right to see the debt liquidated, and ultimately we lost (or delayed) new organic growth.