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Negative Interest Rates

relates to Negative Interest Rates

Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

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For more than half a decade, a basic truism of finance has been turned upside down. Interest rates — which normally reward savers and charge borrowers — have been set below zero by central banks in a handful of big countries. That means savings are losing value and borrowers can be paid to take out a loan. Considered one of the boldest monetary experiments of the 21st century, negative interest rates were adopted in Europe and Japan after policy makers realized that they needed extreme measures because their economies were still struggling years after the 2008 financial crisis. When the pandemic lockdowns halted commerce for months in 2020, central bankers looked for ways to cushion the blow. That rekindled a furious debate about whether rates in the red do more harm than good.

When the pandemic hit, the U.S. Federal Reserve quickly slashed its key interest rate back to near zero, where it had been for almost a decade after the financial crisis. President Donald Trump renewed his heckling of the Fed via Twitter, complaining that its reluctance to go negative put the U.S. at a disadvantage. Chair Jerome Powell repeatedly dismissed the idea, saying the Fed was worried that the policy could roil U.S. money markets and preferred to use other tools. What’s more, he said, research on the effectiveness of negative rates was “quite mixed.” Still, an undercurrent of worry led a market gauge reflecting traders’ expectations of future Fed policy to fall briefly below zero in May 2020, with some investors betting the Fed would have to take the plunge within a year. When the outbreak took hold, central banks that already had negative rates declined to lower them further, instead ramping up bond purchases and lending programs as the Fed has also done. The European Central Bank had cut its rate as recently as September 2019, charging banks 0.5% to hold their cash. But over the six years since ECB rates went negative, the policy has provoked increasing outcry that it has crippled banks and robbed savers. In Germany — a nation with a strong culture of socking money away — tabloid newspaper Bild railed against the central bank, casting former ECB President Mario Draghi as a savings-sucking vampire it dubbed “Count Draghila.”