Unprecedented situations require unprecedented actions. That’s why the Federal Reserve should fight a rapidly deepening recession by taking interest rates below zero for the first time ever.
When Fed officials hold their regular policymaking meeting this week, all the lights on their dashboard will be flashing red. The unemployment rate is expected to reach double digits by June. With global demand cratering, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation will likely fall to 1% or even lower by the end of the year — well below its target of 2%. And in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, the malaise will likely persist well into 2021.
Any Economics 101 student knows that in such a dire situation, the central bank should cut interest rates to stimulate growth and job creation. But as Chairman Jerome Powell reiterated last month, the Fed doesn’t plan to do so in the foreseeable future, because a further quarter-percentage-point cut would drive the interest rate it pays on banks’ reserve deposits into negative territory.
Why the fear of negative rates? A decade ago, the answer would have been that it was impossible to go below zero: Banks would simply avoid the charges by withdrawing their reserve deposits and holding the funds in paper currency, which pays zero interest. But economists now recognize that doesn’t happen, because it’s costly to store billions (or trillions) of dollars of paper currency safely. Several European central banks, as well as the Bank of Japan, have successfully taken interest rates below zero.
This stimulates consumer demand in the usual ways: by incentivizing banks to make loans at lower interest rates, to bid up the prices of financial assets, and to charge higher fees for deposits.
Another of the Fed’s concerns about negative rates has to do with financial stability — a relatively new (and completely made up) responsibility of central banks. Sure, negative interest rates would help lower the unemployment rate from what is likely to be its highest level since World War II. But officials worry that they will also weigh on banks’ profitability, pushing down share prices and making the financial system more vulnerable to distress. Put crudely, the Fed is giving up on unemployment reductions to help keep banks and their shareholders safer.
The Fed is inventing a trade-off where none exists. If the central bank really cares about financial stability, it has many tools to ensure it. Right now, for example, it could block large banks from paying dividends, a practice that erodes the capital they need to absorb losses. None of this precludes a monetary policy focused on the Fed’s congressional mandate of maximizing employment and keeping inflation near target.
So, the Fed is left no good argument against going negative. Terrifyingly high unemployment and potentially rapid disinflation are powerful arguments in favor. Next week, the Fed should take interest rates at least a quarter percentage point below zero.
Narayana Kocherlakota, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.