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Fed Opens Negative Interest Rate Pandora's Box: What Happens Next

As we already commented extensively, while the Fed's dovish non-hike was a violent surprise for the market, and has led to what may be the first thoroughly unanticipated (at least by the market) policy mistake by the Federal Reserve (judging by the market), the biggest news was the very symbolic, yet all too ominous, negative interest rate forecast in the Fed's projection materials by one FOMC member.

This was the first time in Fed history that an FOMC member has on the record predicted NIRP in the US.

Janey Yellen's subsequent non-denial during the press conference did not exactly inspire hope that the Fed was just "joking":

I don’t expect that we’re going to be in a path of providing additional accommodation. But if the outlook were to change in a way that most of my colleagues and I do not expect, and we found ourselves with a weak economy that needed additional stimulus, we would look at all of our available tools. And that would be something that we would evaluate in that kind of context.

Furthermore, when considering that virtually all of Europe is already flooded by NIRP, and earlier Bank of England's Andy Haldane, one of the otherwise more rational members of the central bank, advocated negative rates in the UK, one can be virtually certain that unless there is a dramatic rebound in the global economy, the next step by Yellen will not be a rate hike, but easing (just as Goldman predicted) right into negative interest rate territory.

What would NIRP in the US mean in practical terms?

For the answer we go straight to, drumroll, the Fed itself whose New York economists discussed precisely this topic just three years ago and issued a very stark warning (which apparently the Fed itself decided to ignore), saying "If Interest Rates Go Negative . . . Or, Be Careful What You Wish For."

This is what the New York Fed said in August 2012:

If Interest Rates Go Negative . . . Or, Be Careful What You Wish For


One way to push short-term rates negative would be to charge interest on excess bank reserves. The interest rate paid by the Fed on excess reserves, the so-called IOER, is a benchmark for a wide variety of short-term rates, including rates on Treasury bills, commercial paper, and interbank loans. If the Fed pushes the IOER below zero, other rates are likely to follow.


Without taking a position on either the merits of negative interest rates or the Fed's statutory authority to fix the IOER below zero, this post examines some of the possible consequences. We suggest that significantly negative rates—that is, rates below -50 basis points—may spawn a variety of financial innovations, such as special-purpose banks and the use of certified bank checks in large-value transactions, and novel preferences, such as a preference for making early and/or excess payments to creditworthy counterparties and a preference for receiving payments in forms that facilitate deferred collection. Such responses should be expected in a market-based economy but may nevertheless present new problems for financial service providers (when their products and services are used in ways not previously anticipated) and for regulators (if novel private sector behavior leads to new types of systemic risk). 


Cash and Cash-like Products 


The usual rejoinder to a proposal for negative interest rates is that negative rates are impossible; market participants will simply choose to hold cash. But cash is not a realistic alternative for corporations and state and local governments, or for wealthy individuals. The largest denomination bill available today is the $100 bill. It would take ten thousand such bills to make $1 million. Ten thousand bills take up a lot of space, are costly to transport, and present significant security problems. Nevertheless, if rates go negative, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing will likely be called upon to print a lot more currency as individuals and small businesses substitute cash for at least some of their bank balances.


If rates go negative, we should also expect to see financial innovations that emulate cash in more convenient forms. One obvious candidate is a special-purpose bank that offers conventional checking accounts (for a fee) and pledges to hold no asset other than cash (which it immobilizes in a very large vault). Checks written on accounts in a special-purpose bank would be tantamount to negotiable warehouse receipts on the bank’s cash. Special-purpose banks would probably not be viable for small accounts or if interest rates are only slightly below zero, say -25 or -50 basis points (because break-even account fees are likely to be larger), but might start to become attractive if rates go much lower.


Early Payments, Excess Payments, and Deferred Collections


Beyond cash and special-purpose banks, a variety of interest-avoidance strategies might emerge in connection with payments and collections. For example, a taxpayer might choose to make large excess payments on her quarterly estimated federal income tax filings, with the idea of recovering the excess payments the following April. Similarly, a credit card holder might choose to make a large advance payment and then run down his balance with subsequent expenditures, reversing the usual practice of making purchases first and payments later.


We might also see some relatively simple avoidance strategies in connection with conventional payments. If I receive a check from the federal government, or some other creditworthy enterprise, I might choose to put the check in a drawer for a few months rather than deposit it in a bank (which charges interest). In fact, I might even go to my bank and withdraw funds in the form of a certified check made payable to myself, and then put that check in a drawer.


Certified checks, which are liabilities of the certifying banks rather than individual depositors, might become a popular means of payment, as well as an attractive store of value, because they can be made payable to order and can be endorsed to subsequent payees. Commercial banks might find their liabilities shifting from deposits (on which they charge interest) to certified checks outstanding (where assessing interest charges could be more challenging). If bank liabilities shifted from deposits to certified checks to a significant degree, banks might be less willing to extend loans, because certified checks are likely to be less stable than deposits as a source of funding.


As interest rates go more negative, market participants will have increasing incentives to make payments quickly and to receive payments in forms that can be collected slowly. This is exactly the opposite of what happened when short-term interest rates skyrocketed in the late 1970s: people then wanted to delay making payments as long as possible and to collect payments as quickly as possible. Some corporations chose to write checks on remote banks (to delay collection as long as possible), and consumers learned to cash checks quickly, even if that meant more trips to the bank, and to demand direct deposits. However, if interest rates go negative, the incentives reverse: people receiving payments will prefer checks (which can be held back from collection) to electronic transfers. Such a reversal could impose novel burdens on payment systems that have evolved in an environment of positive interest rates.




The take-away from this post is that if interest rates go negative, we may see an epochal outburst of socially unproductive—even if individually beneficial—financial innovation. Financial service providers are likely to find their products and services being used in volumes and ways not previously anticipated, and regulators may find that private sector responses to negative interest rates have spawned new risks that are not fully priced by market participants.

Yes, the conclusion is staggering: the Fed itself previewed the complete debacle that the Fed itself is now preparing to unleash with NIRP which will lead to "an epochal outburst of socially unproductive—even if individually beneficial—financial innovation." Not only that but the Fed, in a moment of rare lucidity, admitted that "private sector responses to negative interest rates have spawned new risks that are not fully priced by market participants."

Tell that to Europe, Sweden, Switzerland where NIRP already reigns supreme, and all other countries where NIRP is coming.

But what may be missed between the lines is the Fed's explicit observation that in a world of NIRP, cash will reign supreme, as everyone rushes to withdraw their "taxed" bank deposits and keep the funds in the form of paper cash, hidden safely somewhere where the bank has no access, and where no bank can collect an interest rate for the "privilege" of being funded with a negative rate liability.

Furthermore, as the Fed correctly observes, "the usual rejoinder to a proposal for negative interest rates is that negative rates are impossible; market participants will simply choose to hold cash. But cash is not a realistic alternative for corporations and state and local governments, or for wealthy individuals."

So what is the alternative?

The answer was hinted during Andy Haldane's speech earlier today in which he not only urged the banning of cash but the implementation of negative rates, two concepts which, after reading the note above, should intuitively go hand in hand: as we commented "one idea, Haldane told an audience of business owners in Northern Ireland, could be to scrap cash and adopt a state-issued digital currency like Bitcoin. Although widely reviled as the currency for drug dealers and criminals, Haldane said Bitcoin’s distributed payment technology had ‘real potential’. Which may explain the Fed's sudden fascination in the virtual currency."

And fascination it is. Below are some examples of recent Fed research on a topic which as recently as 2011 it held as a heretic taboo, and which the ECB considered a Ponzi scheme as recently as November 2012:

Last but not least:

Of course it does. Why? For two simple reasons:

  • First, as noted above, cash and NIRP simply do not mix as cash provides the general population a handy way of circumventing the intentionally punitive implications of negative rates, which as a tax on all savers, would force everyone to spend savings the moment these were created. The thinking here, of course, would be that with savings immediately converted to consumption, the velocity of money would surge and boost economic growth in the process even if it was conducted under punitive rate duress.
  • Second, and even more important, is the blockchain basis of bitcoin, which is precisely why the Fed is so fascinated by it. With a perpetual and current ledger of every single transaction in the monetary domain, a digital currency such as bitcoin provides the Fed something cash never would - a constant database (or ledger) of every single transaction everywhere and any given moment.

It is the second aspect of bitcoin that has led to such recent headlines as "Big banks consider using Bitcoin blockchain technology" and, of course, Bloomberg's piece from September 1 in which "Blythe Masters Tells Banks the Blockchain Changes Everything."

Yes it does, and especially in a world in which the Fed regulates all blockchain transactions under a negative interest rate regime: quite simply, the combination of blockchain and NIRP give the Fed supreme control over all transactions.

Simply said: bitcoin under NIRP is a Fed match made in heaven.

There is just one small hurdle - eliminating cash as a transaction medium entirely. However, considering the US experience with confiscating monetary intermediates most recently observed with Executive Order 6102 when FDR confiscated all US gold, will the Fed allow such a little "problem" as "sequestering" available cash stand in the way of NIRP dominance? Of course not, especially if the alternative is the complete loss of central bank credibility.

Which, in a nutshell, is what Kocherlakota's negative interest-rate dot unleashed: a world in which the existing cash/ZIRP paradigm becomes blockchain/NIRP (and where the Fed is aware of every single transaction).

And, before you ask, will there be substantial - and violent - opposition to the Fed's mandatory conversion of cash to bitcoin? Of course. But that too certainly not stop the Fed, which fighting for the survival of trillions in legacy "wealth" would simply steamroll over anyone and anything courtesy of the US government's armed backing (which has conclusively proven in recent years its function has metastasized to serve only the wealthiest corporations and Wall Street interests) to preserve such wealth, if only for a little longer.