How Canada May Cope With Negative Rates: Cash Boxes, Waived Fees

  • Bank of Canada paper explains why key rate can go to -0.5%
  • Research by bank staff isn’t official view of policy makers

Canada’s central bank on Monday said financial markets could function even if policy interest rates needed to fall to negative 0.5 percent, citing the success with recent extraordinary policies used in Europe and Japan.

The Bank of Canada’s Review collection of research papers also said that most countries have been able to deploy those policies without a major overhaul of their inflation-targeting frameworks, a key consideration as the Ottawa-based institution is looking to renew its 2 percent target this year.

The international experience with unconventional policies has been “largely positive” even as there is evidence that the power of negative rates may fade over time, according to work by staff economists. The Bank said the conclusions in the research papers don’t necessarily reflect the official views of its Governing Council, which makes policy interest rate decisions.

Governor Stephen Poloz last year laid out some clues about what was held in today’s research, saying the “effective lower bound” for interest rates was negative 0.5 percent, rather than its prior estimate of 0.25 percent. Poloz has said the bar is high for any overhaul of the inflation targeting system, citing its success over the past few decades. Below are some key passages from from the Review papers, starting with how negative rates would work:

*For savings accounts, people may choose to avoid negative interest rates by storing cash and paying fees for safe boxes and insurance. The bank incorporates the costs of such measures into its estimate of the effective lower bound:

“It has long been accepted that, in practical terms, nominal interest rates
cannot fall below zero because investors can always earn a zero nominal
return simply by holding cash.”

“When insurance requirements are taken into account, cash storage costs for the $100 denomination, for example, can be up to 35 bps per year.” 

“Combining both the costs of holding and using cash, we estimate that the effective lower bound in Canada is likely between -25 basis points and -75 basis points, with a midpoint estimate of -50 basis points.”

*On money-market mutual funds: 

“The immediate response of many euro-denominated MMMFs to negative rates was to waive their expense fees and absorb the losses rather than passing them on to their investors.” 

“MMMFs are a relatively small part of the financial system, and the impact of any potential disruption in this sector on the functioning of the financial system as a whole would therefore be limited.”

*On floating rate notes: 

European markets have set higher prices on bond sales, giving more room on the floating rate coupons to make sure there is little chance they will fall below zero, the bank said, and therefore: “It is not inconceivable that Canadian FRN issuers may also respond to negative rates in a similar way.”

*On the power of unconventional policies such as negative interest rates over time: 

“The international experience has been largely positive. Costs associated with these measures could, however, rise with extensive and prolonged use.”

“In theory, negative rates do not fundamentally alter the monetary policy transmission mechanism.”

“Empirical observations, however, suggest that the monetary policy transmission mechanism may have become weaker at low or negative rates.”

*On how other central banks have adapted their inflation targets in an era of extraordinary policies: 

“There have been almost no changes to inflation targets in advanced economies over the past few years; indeed, only the Bank of Japan changed its numeric inflation target since 2012—and that change brought the Bank of Japan’s inflation target in line with international practice.”

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