Negative Interest Rates

Those who had hoped that things could not get worse with the monetary policy of the European Central Bank (ECB) have been proven wrong. At its last meeting on 25 July 2019, the Governing Council of the ECB kept interest rates unchanged: the main refinancing rate was kept at 0.00% and the deposit rate at -0.40%. At the same time, however, ECB President Mario Draghi has prepared the ground to lower interest rates even further in the coming months. What is the reasoning behind that?

According to the ECB Governing Council, inflation is too low, and the euro area economy is too weak. It was precisely this assessment that signaled to the markets to expect a rate cut in the near future. It has now become very likely that the deposit rate will be lowered by 0.2 percentage points to -0.60% at the next ECB meeting in September; and the main refinancing rate could drop to -0.20%. The continued path into the negative interest world, however, has quite dramatic consequences.

The Essence of the Interest Rate

This becomes clear when considering what the interest rate stands for. In short, it represents the value discountthat a later satisfaction of a want suffers compared to an earlier satisfaction of the same want (under otherwise identical circumstances). The “pure” or “originary” interest rate is positive — always and everywhere. It cannot disappear, it cannot go to zero, let alone fall below the zero line; the logic of human action informs us that the pure interest rate cannot be thought away from human actions and values.

However, there is the “new negative interest rate theory,” saying that the “new natural interest rate” — or: the “social pure interest rate” — has become negative. And while this theory is wrong, it has already found its way into monetary policymaking; presumably because it is highly

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