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Central Banks May Choose Helicopter Money Over Negative Rates

The US Federal Reserve (Fed) is considering raising rates. Is the “normalization” of interest rates about to happen which savers and investors have been yearning for? Most likely not. Policymakers are merely realizing that the policy of zero rates — or even negative rates as in the euro area or Switzerland — doesn’t work as intended.

The wider public is very much against it. Banks, for instance, run into trouble because their profits come under severe pressure in an environment of zero, let alone negative, interest rates. Bank clients start protesting as their bank deposits no longer earn a positive return. They even start redeeming their deposits in cash, thereby causing bank refinancing gaps.

Negative Rates Under Another Name

However, central banks are quite unlikely to abandon the idea of pushing real — that is inflation-adjusted — interest rates into the negative. What they might have in mind is allowing for “somewhat higher” nominal interest rates, accompanied by “somewhat higher” inflation, making sure that real interest rates remain in, or fall into, negative territory.

In this vein, the Federal Reserve of San Francisco suggested in a paper published on 15 August 2016 that monetary policy should rethink and possibly allow for an inflation of more than 2 percent.[1] The debate about higher inflation — say, 4 rather than 2 percent — is actually an old one; in academic circles it comes and goes in waves.

The central argument is that a somewhat higher inflation would “grease the wheel” of the economy, thereby supporting production and employment. Another argument has it that higher inflation would make it easier for the Fed to pull the economy out of recession, especially so if and when the “neutral interest rate” has come down considerably.

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