Interest Rate - Negative Interest Rates

Negative Interest Rates

Nominal interest rates are normally positive, but not always. Given the alternative of holding cash, and thus earning 0%, rather than lending it out, profit-seeking lenders will not lend below 0%, as that will guarantee a loss, and a bank offering a negative deposit rate will find few takers, as savers will instead hold cash.

However, central bank rates can, in fact, be negative; in July 2009 Sweden's Riksbank was the first central bank to use negative interest rates, lowering its deposit rate to –0.25%, a policy advocated by deputy governor Lars E. O. Svensson. This negative interest rate is possible because Swedish banks, as regulated companies, must hold these reserves with the central bank: they do not have the option of holding cash.

During the European sovereign-debt crisis, government bonds of some countries (Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Austria) have been sold at negative yields. Suggested explanations include desire for safety and protection against the eurozone breaking up (in which case some eurozone countries might redenominate their debt into a stronger currency).

More often, real interest rates can be negative, when nominal interest rates are below inflation. When this is done via government policy (for example, via reserve requirements), this is deemed financial repression, and was practiced by countries such as the United States and United Kingdom following World War II (from 1945) until the late 1970s or early 1980s (during and following the Post–World War II economic expansion). In the late 1970s, United States Treasury securities with negative real interest rates were deemed certificates of confiscation.

Negative interest rates have been proposed in the past, notably in the late 19th century by Silvio Gesell. A negative interest rate can be described (as by Gesell) as a "tax on holding money"; he proposed it as the Freigeld (free money) component of his Freiwirtschaft (free economy) system. To prevent people from holding cash (and thus earning 0%), Gesell suggested issuing money for a limited duration, after which it must be exchanged for new bills; attempts to hold money thus result in it expiring and becoming worthless. Along similar lines, John Maynard Keynes approvingly cited the idea of a carrying tax on money, (1936, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money) but dismissed it due to administrative difficulties. More recently, a carry tax on currency was proposed by a Federal Reserve employee (Marvin Goodfriend) in 1999, to be implemented via magnetic strips on bills, deducting the carry tax upon deposit, the tax being based on how long the bill had been held.

It has been proposed that a negative interest rate can in principle be levied on existing paper currency via a serial number lottery: choosing a random number 0 to 9 and declaring that bills whose serial number end in that digit are worthless would yield a negative 10% interest rate, for instance (choosing the last two digits would allow a negative 1% interest rate, and so forth). This was proposed by an anonymous student of N. Gregory Mankiw, though more as a thought experiment than a genuine proposal.

A much more simplistic method to ultimately achieve negative interest rate and provide disincentive to holding cash would be for governments to encourage inflationary monetary policy.

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