Are negative interest-rates becoming a never ending saga?

by Shaun Richards

Today brings this subject to mind and let me open with the state of play in Switzerland.

The Swiss National Bank is maintaining its expansionary
monetary policy, thereby stabilising price developments
and supporting economic activity. Interest on sight
deposits at the SNB remains at – 0.75% and the target
range for the three-month Libor is unchanged at between
– 1.25% and – 0.25%.

As you can see negative interest-rates are as Simple Minds would put it alive and kicking in Switzerland. They were introduced as part of the response to a surging Swiss Franc but as we observe so often what are introduced as emergency measures do not go away and then become something of a new normal. It was back on the 18th of December 2014 that a new negative interest-rate era began in Switzerland.

The introduction of negative interest rates makes it less attractive to hold Swiss franc investments, and thereby supports the minimum exchange rate.

Actually the -0.25% official rate lasted less than a month as on the 15th of January 2015 the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro was abandoned and the official interest-rate was cut to -0.75% where it remains.

Added to that many longer-term interest-rates in Switzerland are negative too. For example the Swiss National Bank calculates a generic bond yield which as of yesterday was -0.26%. This particular phase of Switzerland as a nation being paid to borrow began in late November last year.

The recovery

The latest monthly bulletin tells us this.

Jobless figures fell further, and in February the
unemployment rate stood at 2.4%.

There was a time when this was considered to be below even “full employment” a perspective which has been added to this morning and the tweet below is I think very revealing.

If we look at the Swiss economy through that microscope we see that in this phase the unemployment rate has fallen by 1%. Furthermore we see that not only is it the lowest rate of the credit crunch era but also for much of the preceding period as it was back around the middle of 2002.

So if we look at the Swiss internal economy it is increasingly hard to see what would lead to interest-rates rising let alone going positive again. This is added to by the present position as described by the SNB monthly bulletin.

According to an initial estimate, GDP in Switzerland grew
by 0.7% in the fourth quarter. Overall, GDP thus stagnated
in the second half of 2018, having grown strongly to
mid-year.
Leading indicators and surveys for Switzerland point to
moderately positive momentum at the beginning of 2019.

The general forecasting view seems to be for around 1.1% GDP growth this year. So having not raised interest-rates in a labour market boom it seems unlikely unless they have a moment like the Swedish Riksbank had last December that we will see one this year,

Exchange Rate

There is little sign of relief here either. There was a brief moment round about a year ago that the Swiss Franc looked like it would get back to its past 1.20 floor versus the Euro. But since then it has strengthened and is now at 1.126 versus the Euro. Frankly if you are looking for a perceived safe-haven then does a charge of 0.75% a year deter you? That seems a weak threshold and reminds me of my article on interest-rates and exchange rates from the 3rd of May last year.

However some of the moves can make things worse as for example knee-jerk interest-rate rises. Imagine you had a variable-rate mortgage in Buenos Aires! You crunch your domestic economy when the target is the overseas one.

Well events have proven me right about Argentina but whilst the scale here is much lower we have a familiar drum beat. The domestic economy has been affected but the exchange-rate policy has had over four years and is ongoing.

The Euro

Let me hand you over to the President of the ECB Mario Draghi at the last formal press conference.

First, we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged. We now expect them to remain at their present levels at least through the end of 2019……….These are decisions that have been taken following a significant downward revision of the forecasts by our staff.

For reasons only known to themselves part of the financial media persisted in suggesting that an ECB interest-rate rise was in the offing and it would be due round about now. The reality is that any prospect has been pushed further away if we note the present malaise and read this from the same presser.

negative rates have been quite successful in our monetary policy.

Although we can never rule out an attempt to continue to impose negative rates on us but exclude the precious in some form.

Sweden

Last December the Riksbank did start to move away from negative interest-rates. The problem is that they now find themselves wearing something of a central banking dunces cap. Having failed to raise rates in a boom they decided to do so in advance of events like this.

Total orders in industry decreased by 2.0 percent in February 2019 compared with January, in seasonally adjusted figures………..Among the industrial subsectors, the largest decrease was in the industry for motor vehicles, down 12.7 percent compared with January. ( Sweden Statistics yesterday)

Like elsewhere the diesel debacle is taking its toll.

The new registrations of passenger cars during 2019 decreased by 15.2 percent compared with last year. There were 27 710 diesel cars in total registered this year, a decrease of 26 percent compared with last year.

Anyway this is the official view.

As in December, the forecast for the repo rate indicates that the next increase will be during the second half of 2019, provided that the economic outlook and inflation prospects are as expected.

Japan

This is the country that has dipped its toe into the icy cold world of negative rates by the least but the -0.1% has been going for a while now.

introduced “QQE with a Negative Interest Rate” in January 2016 ( Bank of Japan)

If the speech from Bank of Japan Board Member Harida on March 6th is any guide it is going to remain with us.

I mentioned earlier that the economy currently may be weak, and the same can be said about prices.

Also he gives an alternative view on the situation.

Following the introduction of QQE, the nominal GDP growth rate, which had been negative since the global financial crisis, has turned positive………Barring the implementation of both QE and QQE, Japan’s nominal GDP growth would have remained in negative territory this whole time since 1998.

Is it all about the nominal debt of the Japanese state then? Also he seems unlikely to want an interest-rate increase.

Rather, premature policy tightening in the past caused economic deterioration, a decline in both prices and production, and lowered interest rates in the long run.

Comment

We find that there are two routes to negative interest-rates. The first is to weaken the exchange-rate such as we have seen in Switzerland and the second is to boost the economy like in the Euro area. So external in the former and internal in the latter. It can be combined as if you wish to boost your economy a lower exchange-rate is usually welcome and this pretty much defines Abenomics in Japan.

As we stand neither route seems to have worked much. Maybe a negative interest-rate helped the Euro area and Japan for a while but the current slow down suggests not for that long. So we face something of an economic oxymoron which is that it is the very fact that negative interest-rates have not worked which explains their longevity and while they seem set to be with us for a while yet.

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