Central bank Digital Coins are to enforce negative interest-rates

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by Shaun Richards

The weekend just gone produced quite a lot of news. Another lockdown in the UK is in the offing and there is of course the not so small matter of tomorrow’s US election. But something that does not make such headlines was also very significant and it came from ECB President Christine Lagarde.

We’ve started exploring the possibility of launching a digital euro. As Europeans are increasingly turning to digital in the ways they spend, save and invest, we should be prepared to issue a digital euro, if needed. I’m also keen to hear your views on it.

Actually it looks as though they have already decided and are launching a public consultation as cover for the exercise. After all most will not understand what are the real consequences of this especially as it will be presented as being modern and something which is happening anyway. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a push for electronic forms of payment which is really rather convenient for this purpose. So they have a good chance of getting support and if they do not well they will simply ignore it. I must say it is hard not to laugh at the “if needed” because it is the central bankers as I shall explain who need it and not the Euro areas consumers and savers.

The real problem is highlighted here.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic came as a deep shock to all of us and warranted fast policy responses. I’m proud to say that we’ve delivered: our measures have been providing crucial support to the eurozone economy and to European citizens.

It is the first sentence which applies here although I have to say the tone deaf nature of “we’ve delivered” in the second is pretty shocking. The ECB already had problems with the Euro area economy as the “Euroboom” faded and growth was not only poor but the largest economy and indeed bell weather Germany was struggling. Then the pandemic hit and made everything worse.

The ECB’s Problem

This arises from the fact that in response to the issues above it has used so many monetary policy options. It was as long ago as June 2014 that it introduced negative interest-rates and there have been further reductions since. Its Deposit Rate is now -0.5% and via the TLTROs it has reduced its interest-rates for the banks to -1%. This is a crucial point in today’s narrative because they feel they cannot keep interest-rates at these negative levels without throwing some free fish to the banks. There is a lot of irony here because interest-rates were cut to help the banks but the supposed cure has turned out to be poison at the dosages required. You do not need to take my word for it just tale a look at bank’s share prices. For example my old employer Deutsche Bank has a share price which has nudged over 8 Euros this morning which is around half of what it was in early 2017 and well you do the maths in the fall from this.

The all-time high Deutsche Bank Aktiengesellschaft stock closing price was 159.59 on May 11, 2007. ( macrotrends.net )

So the banks are struggling with negative interest-rates as they are which poses a problem for a central bank wanted to go lower or in the new buzzword be “recalibrated”.

The Plan

Actually the ECB was part of a group of central banks which asked the Bank for International Settlements to look into this issue in January.

In jurisdictions where cash use is declining and digitalisation is increasing, CBDC could also play an important role in maintaining access to, and expanding the utility of, central bank money. ( CBDC = Central Bank Digital Coin)

As that is not a problem they are up to something else here. Also they are worried that it might make the problem they are supposed to stop worse.

There are two main concerns: first that, in times of financial crisis, the existence of a CBDC could enable larger
and faster bank runs; and second, and more generally, that a shift from retail deposits into CBDC
(“disintermediation”) could lead banks to rely on more expensive and less stable sources of funding.

In the end it is always about the banks in their role as The Precious. I think we get more of the truth here.

CBDC may offer opportunities that are not possible with cash. A convenient and accessible
CBDC could serve as an alternative to potentially unsafe forms of private money, offer users privacy, reduce
illegal activity, facilitate fiscal transfers and/or enable “programmable money”. Yet these opportunities may
involve trade-offs and unless these have a bearing on a central bank’s mandate (eg through threatening
confidence in the currency), they will be secondary motivations for central banks.

To my mind the opportunities are for central bankers and not for us.

The IMF lets the cat out of the bag

Back in February 2019 it told us this.

In a cashless world, there would be no lower bound on interest rates. A central bank could reduce the policy rate from, say, 2 percent to minus 4 percent to counter a severe recession.

I am sure you have already spotted why the ECB is now on the case. As to cash it turns out it has a feature which makes central bankers hate it. This is simply that it offers 0% which as the IMF explains below is a barrier to central bank “innovation”,

When cash is available, however, cutting rates significantly into negative territory becomes impossible. Cash has the same purchasing power as bank deposits, but at zero nominal interest. Moreover, it can be obtained in unlimited quantities in exchange for bank money. Therefore, instead of paying negative interest, one can simply hold cash at zero interest. Cash is a free option on zero interest, and acts as an interest rate floor.

There is an irony in this as by doing nothing it has turned out to be a powerful tool. The central bankers will be furious at the advice given by the rather prescient Steve Miller Band.

Hoo-hoo-hoo, go on, take the money and run
Go on, take the money and run
Hoo-hoo-hoo, go on, take the money and run
Go on, take the money and run.

Banning a song usually only makes it more popular. That would also be true of cash I suspect.

Comment

As so often what we are told is very different to what is the plan. A central bank digital coin is a way of imposing even deeper negative interest-rates. The IMF gave a template for this below.

To illustrate, suppose your bank announced a negative 3 percent interest rate on your bank deposit of 100 dollars today. Suppose also that the central bank announced that cash-dollars would now become a separate currency that would depreciate against e-dollars by 3 percent per year. The conversion rate of cash-dollars into e-dollars would hence change from 1 to 0.97 over the year. After a year, there would be 97 e-dollars left in your bank account. If you instead took out 100 cash-dollars today and kept it safe at home for a year, exchanging it into e-money after that year would also yield 97 e-dollars.

This brings us back to the ECB which last week told us this.

this recalibration exercise will touch on all our instruments. It is not going to be one or the other. It is not going to be looking at one single instrument. It will be looking at all our instruments, how they interact together, what will be the optimal outcome, and what will be the mix that will best address the situation.

It fears that further interest-rate cuts could cause a bank run. I agree with that and have written before that somewhere around -1.5% to -2% seems likely to be the threshold. Thus any more cuts will bring them near that especially as the LTRO rate is already -1%. So in their view a new plan is required and some of you may already be mulling their existing plan to phase out the 500 Euro note which is their highest denomination.

Putting this another way they are worried by two developments. One is Bitcoin which potentially challenges the monopoly power of central banks and also the demand for cash is rising not falling. In the Euro area it was 1.33 trillion Euros in September as opposed to 1.2 trillion a year before.

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