Has the time come and passed for negative interest rates?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Step back and consider the cultural context. Germany is still scarred by the memories of two world wars, fascism, communism, deflation and hyperinflation: in general, huge instability. Since the end of World War II, however, personal savings and the banking system have been an oasis of predictability and a driver of growth. Many Germans treasure their frugality, perhaps excessively or irrationally, and it has become an important part of the narrative Germans tell themselves about the economic order they have built.

Now enter the ECB, in essence telling Germans (and others) that savings are a bad thing, to be taxed and penalized. The very word “negative,” as in “negative interest rate,” makes the policy hard to sell politically. The German word “Strafzinsen” refers to a penalty rate, but the root “Straf” also refers to punishment, and it was used effectively by Franz Kafka in his famous torture-laden short story “In the Penal Colony” (the German title is “In der Strafkolonie”). One German newspaper referred to the “final expropriation” of the German saver, noting that the ECB’s decision to deviate from its inflation target carries “grave consequences.”

More generally, a significant segment of the German population is upset or outraged by the policy. There is even a claim that the revenue from the negative interest payments will be used to finance other EU countries.

Most economists and central bankers view negative interest rates as an acceptable tool of macroeconomic management. Maybe so. But in an era when trust, including trust among nations, is much lower than previously thought, it probably isn’t a good idea to place a punishing new tax on the German national virtue of saving. Central bankers must also be sensitive to public relations.

I find it striking how many people are responding to this column by insisting that Merkel should do more fiscal stimulus.  She should (though I don’t find “stimulus” to be the most instructive word here), as I suggest in the piece, because the Germans have been letting their infrastructure run down for a good while now — internet speeds anybody?  But at the end of the day, I don’t think that spending will eliminate the basic macroeconomic problem facing the EU, nor is most of that spending likely to land on the doorstep of the countries which most need it (though Huawei may benefit a good deal).  There is also this:

So if a policy of negative interest rates is just a Band-Aid, it is one that should be ripped off. And if monetary policy is insufficiently expansionary, that is going to require an increase in the ECB’s inflation target, or a move to nominal GDP targeting, not a jerry-rigged tax on deposits.

There is also an argument that Germans are saving too much. But by some measures, they have a level of national wealth relatively low for their per capita income, in part because Germans are less likely to own their own homes. According to the OECD, Germany’s near neighbors Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland all save more in percentage terms than Germany does.

German savers: underrated.


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