Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Of Free drinks and negative interest rate policy...

If soft drinks (Coke/Pepsi/tea/coffee etc.) were freely available would you tend to have more of it? Often I end up having one extra coke. If its tea/coffee I end up having even more. I will have to work it off that day through exercise or it will cause some harm in the long term. 

Zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) is like that - if you already wanted Coke and it was easily available you end up having a little more Coke. Likewise, if you already wanted debt, and it was easily available at almost zero cost, then you will have a little more. But not a lot more - coz you have to work it off.

But what if you don't want them?
Say your doctor told you to not have soft drinks at all - no tea/coffee too. Now will you have that? NO? Even if I give you some money - say 2 cents - to have these soft drinks? Still NO? 

Well, me giving you some money is similar to Negative interest rate policy (NIRP). Or similar to one aspect of NIRP. You get a tiny advantage if you take on debt. Is it that difficult to understand why it doesn't work as central bankers hope?

But may be NIRP could work...
Now some will agree that ZIRP may not work, but, they say, NIRP could work. They point to the second aspect of NIRP which is that if you save you get taxed extra. Now if I have $100 in cash in a bank, next year I will have only $98 so next year I will be able to spend less than I can do today. Isn't that an incentive for spending now rather than next year? I say not always!

There are a few reasons:

  1. If the trends are deflationary your $98 next year may be able to buy as much as $100 today - sometimes even more. If the efficient market hypothesis* were working prices would adjust to reflect the new purchasing power. NIRP would create some deflationary force as well. Yes, it is small but it is deflationary never the less. So unless the NIRP was creating an overwhelming inflationary force, it may push a precariously balanced economy into deflation. 
  2. The NIRP tax does not affect those paying down an earlier debt. In fact, it encourages people to swap new debt for old debt. Debt repayment helps you avoid the tax. This is even more deflationary.
  3. NIRP does not work if I anticipate unpredictable cash requirements - say because I want to keep some money to invest when prices correct, or I think my business loan may need to be repaid if my business does not do well in next quarter, or I expect health care costs etc. In fact, it works reverse - in such cases, I would be encouraged to save $102 or $104 just to keep a buffer.
  4. NIRP may push those with huge cash balances to move cash abroad. Do you think Apple and Google will bring that extra cash into a country with NIRP? No way! They might move it to a destination where it will be easier to hold cash. So is this what you want to happen? NO! Who gets affected is the individual who keeps getting taxed extra.
  5. I may not want debt or I may not want to spend at all. I have the clothes, I have the phones, computers, TV, house, car, swimming pool etc - all the goodies I can spend on when you nudged me to spend the last time. Now I have mostly everything I need. So why should I spend on something I am not excited about? Beats me!

* I don't think Efficient market hypothesis works on a "point-in-time" basis - though it works on an average basis.