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Negative Rates in the U.S.? Never Say Never

With jobs losses mounting and the prospects for a quick economic rebound fading, some segments of the financial markets are beginning to bet that the Federal Reserve will take interest rates negative for the first time in U.S. history. If that happens, it could have a profound impact on the U.S. economy, and more specifically, on financial institutions.

While other nations such as Denmark, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland have experimented with negative rates over the years, the U.S. has shied away – both for political and economic reasons. Instead, when interest rates are near zero, the Fed prefers to use a mix of large-scale asset purchases and forward guidance to support the economy. In the current crisis, the Fed has also launched several new emergency lending programs to ensure the smooth functioning of the financial system. The question remains, however, if these tools will be enough to keep the U.S. out of a deep recession, especially if Congress fatigues on further fiscal support.

The Fed is independent but keep an eye on the markets

In his May 13th remarks to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said that he and the rest of the rate-setting committee unanimously shared the same view on negative rates: “For now, it is not something we are considering”. While some market watchers looked for clues in the “for now” phrasing, it was clear from the rest of his remarks that the bar for enacting negative rates was set very, very high.

However, despite the Fed having independence in its policy-making decisions, financial markets and to some extent, politics, still have influence. And there is precedent for markets exerting pressure on the Fed and perhaps even getting their way.

In 2013, when then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made a surprise announcement that the Fed would reduce the level of asset purchases, global financial markets went into a frenzy. That period, now known as the “Taper Tantrum”, altered the way the Fed signals its policy actions. More recently, the big declines in equity markets in late 2018 were seen by many as a primary driver in the Fed’s sudden U-turn from raising rates four times that year to lowering them three times in 2019.

Now, with equity markets wanting more stimulus and traders in fed fund futures appearing to anticipate negative rates from the central bank in early 2021, there is concern that the markets are trying to bully their way again. And with the president’s renewed call for the Fed to take rates negative, there is some reason to believe that “not now” could become “now” sooner than many expect.

Concerns for financial institutions

While several central banks have resorted to negative interest rate policy for years, the efficacy of its use is unclear. But what is clear, is that financial institutions bear the greatest burden in implementing the policy.

Currently in the U.S., banks earn interest on excess reserves held at the Fed. Negative rates would essentially flip the script and penalize this practice, forcing banks either to pay the Fed interest or do something else with the money. The hope is that this will encourage banks to make more loans and stimulate the economy.

However, as Fed Chair Powell said in his remarks, he believes that negative rates could have the opposite effect and curtail lending. Since negative rates would put a downward pressure on interest rates across the board, the net interest margin – the spread banks make between what they pay depositors and what they charge for loans – would be compressed and profitability would sink. If banks and other financial institutions are struggling, credit availability could decline when it is needed the most.

Why it matters

Financial institutions cannot ignore the possibility of negative interest rates in the U.S. as it would have wide-ranging effects and potentially significant consequences. And while Fed officials have said they are not considering negative rates, the notion is not totally off the table.

As the famous economist, Stanley Fischer, advised his fellow central bankers in his well-known piece “Central Bank Lessons from the Global Crisis”:

“In a crisis, central bankers (and no doubt other policymakers) will often find themselves deciding to implement policy actions that they never thought they would have to undertake – and these are frequently policy actions that they would prefer not to have to undertake. Hence, a few final words of advice for central bankers: Never say never.”