Negative Nominal Interest Rates and Banking

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 taught us many lessons about monetary policy. Most importantly, we learned that when financial systems are impaired, central banks can backstop both illiquid institutions and illiquid markets. Actively lending to solvent intermediaries against a broad range of collateral, purchasing assets other than those issued by sovereigns, and expanding their balance sheets can limit disruptions to the real economy while preserving price stability.

We also learned that nominal interest rates can be negative, at least somewhat. But in reducing interest rates below zero―as has happened in Denmark, Hungary, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and the Euro Area―policymakers face concerns about whether their actions will have the desired expansionary effect (see here). At positive interest rates, when central bankers ease, they influence the real economy in part by expanding banks’ willingness and ability to lend. Does this bank lending channel work as well when interest rates are negative?

Why should there be any sort of asymmetry at zero? Banks run a spread business: they care about the difference between the interest rate they charge on their loans and the one they pay on their deposits, not the level of rates per se. In practice, however, zero matters because banks are loathe to lower their deposit rates below zero….

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To Form a More Perfect Union

On 31 May 2018, Vítor Constâncio completes 18 years on the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB)—8 as Vice President and 10 as Governor of the Bank of Portugal before that. Ahead of his departure, Vice President Constâncio delivered a valedictory address setting out his views on what needs to be done to make European Monetary Union (EMU) (and what people on the continent refer to as the “European Project”) robust.

Before we get to his proposals, we should emphasize that we continue to view political shifts as the biggest challenge facing EMU (see our earlier posts here and here). The rise of populism in recent euro-area member elections is not conducive to the risk-sharing needed to sustain EMU over the long run. Without democratic support, investor fears of redenomination risk—associated with widening bond yield spreads and, possibly, runs on the banking systems of some national jurisdictions—will continue to resurface whenever political risks spike or local economic fortunes ebb. This latent vulnerability—resembling that of a fixed-exchange rate regime with free movement of capital—diminishes the prospect for strong and stable economic growth in the region as a whole.

Turning to the need for change, the current framework has three significant shortcomings…

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The Fed's Price Stability Achievement

Over the past decade, critics of all stripes have assailed Federal Reserve monetary policy. At one end of the spectrum, some argued that the Fed’s expansionary balance sheet policy risked currency debasement and high inflation. While some of these critics sought merely to influence ongoing policy, others called for replacing the Fed altogether, and restoring the Gold Standard. And then there were those promoting oversight over monetary policy operations that would significantly curtail central bank independence.

At the other end, a different set of critics worried about outright deflation: according to monthly averages from Google Trends, since 2004, U.S. searches for deflation were twice as frequent as those for hyperinflation. Some economists called for a higher inflation target. Squarely in the second camp, officials inside the Federal Reserve System developed deflation probability trackers like this one (here is another from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta).

These diverse perspectives form the backdrop to this year's report for the U.S Monetary Policy Forum (USMPF) that we co-authored with Michael Feroli, Peter Hooper and Anil Kashyap. In that paper, we document that the trend in U.S. inflation has been remarkably low and stable since the early 1990s....


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The Future of the Euro

In 2012, the ECB faced down a mortal threat to the euro: fears of redenomination (the re-introduction of domestic currencies) were feeding a run away from banks in the geographic periphery of the euro area and into German banks. Since President Mario Draghi spoke in London that July, the ECB has done things that once seemed unimaginable, helping to support the euro and secure price stability.

So far, it has been enough. But can the ECB really do “whatever it takes”? Ultimately, monetary stability requires political support. Without fiscal cooperation, no central bank can maintain the value of its currency. In a monetary union, stability also requires a modicum of cooperation among governments.

Recent developments in France have revived concerns about redenomination risk and the future of the euro....

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The Map is the Message: Regional Feds versus Euro-area NCBs

Some time ago, we wrote about how the Fed and the ECB’s governance and communication were converging. Our focus was on the policy, governance and communications framework, including the 2% inflation objective, the voting rotation, post-meeting press conference, prompt publication of meeting minutes, and the like.

But important differences are built into the legal design of these two systems. Perhaps the most important one is the contrasting roles of the regional Federal Reserve Banks and that of the National Central Banks (NCBs)...

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How Low Can They Go?

Not long ago, nearly everyone thought that nominal interest rates could not go below zero. Now, we have negative policy rates in the euro area and Japan, while in Sweden and Switzerland, the lowest controlled rate is below -1%. And government securities worth trillions of dollars bear negative rates, too.

When we first wrote about negative rates a year ago, we argued that the effective lower bound (ELB, rather than ZLB) for nominal rates was determined by the transactions costs of storing and transferring cash. We reasoned that the ELB might be in the range of -0.50% (minus one-half percent). Below that, we thought, there would be a move into cash, facilitated by banks and others who efficiently manage the notes for clients.

But, at the negative rates that we have seen so far, cash in circulation has not spiked. So, how much further can nominal interest rates fall? And what role should negative interest rates play in the future?


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What should Greece do?

Greece faces a stark choice: stay in the euro and implement the policies demanded by its creditors or exit and re-introduce its own national currency. The dimensions of this decision go far beyond economics, affecting Greece’s political and cultural identity for generations. Yet, even in a narrow sense – determining which option will lead to the best economic outcome for Greeks – the decision is complex and fraught with uncertainty...

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ECB Paddles Both Ways in the Rubicon

On January 22, the ECB crossed the Rubicon twice – but in opposite directions. In an effort to combat deflation and years of anemic growth, the central bank announced a sustained program of large-scale asset purchases. At the same time, it capped the amount of risk-sharing in the Eurosystem. Other central banks have done the first, but not the second.  And, while outright balance sheet expansion helped ease euro area financial conditions somewhat, the limit on risk-sharing works in the other direction. Rowing toward both shores at the same time doesn’t move a boat far or fast...

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The ECB's Not-So-Sweet 16th

Sixteenth birthdays can be momentous occasions. A coming of age of sorts. Well, New Year’s Day 2015 the European Central Bank turned 16. It is a momentous birthday, but not all that sweet.

To be sure, there is notable good news. The new headquarters in Frankfurt recently opened. Lithuania has entered the euro area. The frequency of ECB monetary policy meetings is about to decline. And there will soon be timely publication of minutes of these meetings.

But the risk of deflation amid sustained economic weakness makes for a very anxious birthday...

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The Importance of Being Europe

If Oscar Wilde were still around, he could write a wonderful comedy about European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Like the life of his protagonist, Ernest John, the evolution of EMU is rarely pure and never simple. But it would take a Wilde imagination to see exactly how EMU gets to a happy ending.

Despite its name, EMU was not and is not primarily an economic endeavor...

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ECB and Fed: Separated at Birth?

Nearly 30 years ago, the satirical Spy magazine began posing the now-familiar question – “separated at birth?” – above lookalike images of two unconnected public figures. Donald Trump was paired with Elvis Presley, Marie Osmond with Monica Lewinsky, and the list goes on (and on). Had Spy found humor in juxtaposing institutions rather than personalities, it still wouldn’t have landed on the Fed and the ECB (which didn’t yet exist): their buildings look nothing alike...

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Update on Target2 Balances: Limited progress

Observers of the euro-area financial crisis typically focus on the yield spreads on peripheral government long-term bonds (compared to German yields) as the “fever thermometer” of the crisis. On that basis (see chart below), the crisis looks like it is over: after peaking in 2012, spreads rapidly receded following European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi’s promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. Indeed, in Ireland, Italy, and Spain, yields themselves have now sunk to the lowest levels since the euro was created in 1999...
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ECB AQR: Nervous Banks Make Banking Safer

European banks are uneasy. They’re concerned that – for the first time – they face a serious evaluation that could reveal big holes in their balance sheets. While the ECB is due to reveal the results of its ongoing asset quality review (AQR) only in October, officials reportedly will inform banks of serious deficiencies along the way so that the banks can address them immediately (“ECB set to alert banks to asset quality review problems,” FT, April 27, 2014). The fear is that rumors of a significant capital shortfall could trigger funding problems for a bank well before the AQR is complete.
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The ECB plans to ease, but how?

The European Central Bank is nervous. Inflation in the euro area has fallen to 0.5 percent (see chart), well below the ECB’s objective of slightly below 2 percent. Not only that, but most of the peripheral countries (including Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia. Spain, and Portugal) are now experiencing deflation. What to do?

Last week, President Mario Draghi signaled that the ECB Governing Council is likely to ease policy at its June 5 meeting. How?...
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ECB Minute by Minute

Central bank communication is a work in progress everywhere, but particularly so in the euro area.

Unlike the Fed, the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan, which all publish minutes of their policy meetings with a lag of a few weeks, current ECB rules anticipate releasing summary records of Governing Council meetings only 30 years after they occur.
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What the ECB does (and what it doesn’t)

In June 2012, the balance sheet of the ECB peaked at over €3 trillion.  Since then it fell every month, so that by the end of 2013 it stood at €2.2 trillion.  Over this same period, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet rose from less than $3 trillion to more than $4 trillion.  That is, as the ECB’s balance sheet was falling by a quarter, the Fed’s rose by a third!

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