Across the developed world the persistence of a phenomenon that was initially seen as a freak occurrence—negative interest rates—is now a cause for concern. One form the tendency takes is for central banks to set their policy rates, which signal their monetary stance, below zero. The process was triggered by the European Central Bank (ECB). Under pressure to forestall deflation in the region, the ECB reduced its deposit rate to (minus) 0.1 per cent in June 2014. Since then, according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), till January 2016 four national central banks, from Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan, have moved the interest ‘paid’ on part of their deposits with them to negative territory.
After the Great Recession began in late 2008, there was a widespread trend observed for policy rates to be cut to stall and reverse the economic downturn. This process has now gone so far in some countries, that rates have breached the zero-barrier. The ECB itself has in three steps cut its deposit rate to (minus) 0.2, (minus) 0.3 and (minus) 0.4 in September 2014, December 2015 and March 2016 respectively (Chart 1).
Underlying this trend is a much more pro-active role for monetary policy in countering deflationary trends. Thus, in March 2016 the ECB reduced the interest it pays on deposits (or further lowered the negative rate from -0.3 to -0.4 per cent). In addition, it offered zero interest loans to banks, with the promise that if they use that money to lend 2.5 per cent or more than they were previously doing, then the ECB would pay them the equivalent of 0.4 per cent of what they borrowed from it as interest. In sum, the central bank is promising to pay banks that borrow from it, as long as they increase their lending to households and firms.