The zero bound debate – are negative rates a tightening of policy?

Matt’s and James’s recent blogs outlined some of the issues markets face when rates go negative. This is obviously no longer just a theoretical debate, but has real investment implications. Why do investors accept sub-zero rates when they can hold cash ?

To recap using Swiss Francs for example, it makes sense for a saver from a purely economic view not to deposit a Swiss Franc note into a negative yielding bank account, as it will be worth less when it gets returned, due to negative rates.

However, the saver faces risks by holding physical cash as they don’t receive the security benefits from using a bank account (ie paying for an electronic safety box). The use of the old fashioned lock and key is not as convenient as a bank account, but would make increasing sense to use as deposit rates get more and more negative. This demand for owning physical as opposed to electronic cash is not confined to cash accounts. In theory, as the term structure of interest rates falls below zero, bond investors should sell their bonds and own “cash in a box”  instead. How efficient is it to do this ?

The great problem with using paper money as a saving instrument is that its inherent best in class liquidity also makes it vulnerable to fire and theft. From an individual’s perspective, the use of a secure fire proof safe deposit box in a bank or a secure location away from home is the best starting point. The optimum solution however relies on economies of scale. Is this easily achieved?

As an investor, diversity makes sense. Therefore, an individual should spread their cash over a wide selection of safety deposit boxes in a wide variety of very secure locations. An improvement, but currently not that practical. But there could be a way to achieve the above goals relatively efficiently and cheaply.

In a negative interest rate environment  there are likely to  be enough investors who want to own bearer cash for a network of highly secure safe deposit boxes to be developed by a bank or institution. This means there would be a high degree of security and diversification regarding the location for the cash. In order to make the cash available to the investor easily, certificates of deposit could be issued physically or preferably electronically. This would allow the investor to transfer money easily, as they would only need to go to their nearest depository to deposit or access the cash, or their nearest bank if a bank agrees to physically deposit or withdraw cash for them.  Basically this ends up being a bank account where the cash does not get lent, but has a custodian holding charge. In theory, in the extreme, you could even develop markets in exchange traded derivatives issues that are linked to cash held in a depository, to allow individuals and large institutions to manage cash as a saving instrument with no negative yield. A new efficient savings industry could be developed in a negative yield environment, so limiting the downside to the sub-zero bound for short and long term interest rates.

One side effect would be that all these savings would have to be held in real cash, which will mean an increase in the demand for physical notes. If cash is held in custody and is not lent on then the supply of money in the economy for normal transactions will fall. This begins to sound deflationary, and runs counter to why sub-zero policy is being pursued.

As long as cash exists in a physical bearer form it is hard to see how you can have significant negative rates of interest in an economy where government debt and cash are the obligations of the same entity, as they are truly fungible. At its worst, monetary policy of sub-zero rates could encourage a deflationary spiral. Maybe the only policy left to create inflation is real and not conservative QE (see my last blog).

The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

Richard Woolnough

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