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The Implications of Negative Interest Rates

What if the ECB goes sub-zero...?

THE IMPOSITION of the near-mythical, negative deposit rate might seem to entail more problems than advantages, writes Sean Corrigan for the Cobden Centre.

This is not least because it would effectively act as a tax, a drain upon the earnings, of the very same banks that the last five year's ruinous policies have been attempting to bolster. Bear in mind that, even after the recent redemptions, European banks have a hefty €628 billion parked with the ECB and so a 50bp levy on this could amount annually to perhaps 15% of industry-wide profits.

Nor can banks simply avoid this by withdrawing their funds: outside money – the kind created by the central bank – is, after all – outside. This means that its supply can only be altered with the complicity of the bank of issue itself which must therefore allow its myrmidons to pay back more of their LTROs, covered bond repos, and so forth – a reduction of liquidity which one might think would run counter to the original intention. Thus, one supposes, the idea will be that the banks will pass on the cost to their own depositors, of taxing their money instead.

Here we must consider the fact that while the individual can easily seek to disembarrass himself of what he now considers an excess proportion of money among his holdings, collectively the public can only have their aggregate stock of inside (bank-created) monies diminished in one of three ways: they must repay their loans (deleverage further); the banks themselves must call in said loans (intensify the crunch); or people who hold a demand account must swap it for a term deposit (which does not constitute money-proper), or invest in a long-term security issued by the bank itself (we specify this last because a moment's thought will reveal that the purchase of non-bank paper simply passes the parcel to the seller or issuer of said obligations who must then rid himself of them in his turn).

While that latter condition might seem an ideal juncture at which the banks could seek to boost their levels of capital (albeit at an average price:book of significantly less than one), the truth is that what the authorities seem most keen to provoke is what is technically called a 'monetary disequilibrium' – that is, the situation where the public's demand to hold money is thrown out of kilter. Under such conditions, the money stock can only be effectively reduced if its real value falls; if prices rise and so reduce its worth; i.e., if there is an inflation.

In that regard, the impulse to buy stocks on what is no more than a vague expression of intent might not seem so wholly irrational, after all. To see this in what is admittedly a toy example, suppose that half the population holds only cash and no equities (call these sticks-in-the-mud Group A), while the remainder has a reverse proportion of all equities, no cash to an equal overall nominal value held in their portfolios (call the 'Nothing but Blue Skies' crowd, Group B). The aggregate cash ratio from which we start is therefore 50% (albeit thanks to a not-to-be-exceeded and somewhat unrealistic divergence of preferences between our two cohorts).

Now suppose the members of Group A change their outlook on life and seek to acquire equities from Group B, paying successively higher prices for ever smaller increments in order to tempt their counterparts into the trade. Under some fairly crude assumptions, after four rounds of such bidding, with one third of the stock of equities having exchanged against two-thirds the stock of money, equity prices will have tripled, the cash ratio of both groups will have converged on 25%, and aggregate net worth will have doubled (to the relative advantage of the initial equity holders, but to the outright, if decidedly notional, benefit of all). 

Note, however, that none of this says that the equities are worth three times as much for even if the monetary disturbance has somehow meant that earnings have also tripled (and this is far from being guaranteed even should revenues rise in proportion), this may represent no material gain whatsoever. It may only register the inflation of a wider range of prices which here has not been consequent upon an increase in the stock of money per se but solely upon a diminution in its societal valuation.

Herein lies the great gaping hole at the centre of official policy. Yes, the central banks can increase the stock of outside money almost without limit. Yes, they can make it as unattractive as possible for anyone to hold this (though when we come to think about the impact of negative rates, let us not forget that people are generally happy to pay to have their other valuables safely stored, or that bank charges used to be a routine imposition upon the short-term depositor). And yes, to some extent they can assume that their actions will enhance the relative appeal of things other than money or its partial substitutes. 

But what they cannot ever gauge is how much influence they can exert, nor how quickly their will may be done, nor even upon what specific mix of goods, services, or claims their policy will have most impact. As the great Richard Cantillon pointed out three centuries since, the whole question is highly path dependent and the path actually followed will be the result of an incredible cascade of interactions between individual and subjective choices, each one altering the quantum field in which the next has to be taken. 

As we Austrians have been saying for the past one hundred years, this affects relative prices much more profoundly than it does average ones. Crucially, it is in that matrix of relative prices that you find the motivations for all economic actions and the justification or otherwise for both the composition of the capital stock and the distribution and employment of labour. If entrepreneurial uncertainty and personal bewilderment have been major contributors to our ongoing malaise, as many of us have been arguing, it should be clear that we seek to introduce further sources of instability and potential disruption only at our peril.

Nor can our Sorcerer's Apprentices be entirely sure that, as the demons they have summoned out of the vasty deep continue to chip away at the foundations of trust in the very currency which they, the necromancers, are charged with upholding, they do not unleash a catastrophic collapse of the whole superstructure of values and contractual chains which towers above them, reducing the whole economic system to chaos in the process.

If you can convince me that any mortal can hold such a complex tangle of possible outcomes within their comprehension, I will allow that our monetary heretics may be right to do away with the combined practical experience and theoretical understanding of all those who have gone before them over the ages. Until you do, I shall be forced to withhold my endorsement and to mutter darkly about the unexpiable sin of hubris instead.

Stalwart economist of the anti-government Austrian school, Sean Corrigan has been thumbing his nose at the crowd ever since he sold Sterling for a profit as the ERM collapsed in autumn 1992. Former City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning, a frequent contributor to the widely-respected Ludwig von Mises and Cobden Centre websites, and a regular guest on CNBC, Mr.Corrigan is a consultant at Hinde Capital, writing their Macro Letter.

See the full archive of Sean Corrigan articles.

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