Are Negative Rates Backfiring? Here’s Some Early Evidence

Economists worry that people and businesses are saving more, instead of spending

By Georgi Kantchev, Christopher Whittall and Miho Inada

The European Central Bank cut interest rates below zero to encourage consumers and businesses to spend more. Photo: Martin Leissl/Bloomberg News 

KORSCHENBROICH, Germany—Two years ago, the European Central Bank cut interest rates below zero to encourage people such as Heike Hofmann, who sells fruits and vegetables in this small city, to spend more.

Policy makers in Europe and Japan have turned to negative rates for the same reason—to stimulate their lackluster economies. Yet the results have left some economists scratching their heads. Instead of opening their wallets, many consumers and businesses are squirreling away more money.

When Ms. Hofmann heard the ECB was knocking rates below zero in June 2014, she considered it “madness” and promptly cut her spending, set aside more money and bought gold. “I now need to save more than before to have enough to retire,” says Ms. Hofmann, 54 years old.

Heike Hofmann, who sells fruits and vegetables in Korschenbroich, Germany, reacted to negative rates by cutting her spending.

Heike Hofmann, who sells fruits and vegetables in Korschenbroich, Germany, reacted to negative rates by cutting her spending. Photo: Georgi Kantchev/The Wall Street Journal

Recent economic data show consumers are saving more in Germany and Japan, and in Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden, three non-eurozone countries with negative rates, savings are at their highest since 1995, the year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development started collecting data on those countries. Companies in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Japan also are holding on to more cash.

Economists point to a variety of other possible factors confounding central-bank policy: Low inflation has left consumers with more money to sock away; aging populations are naturally more inclined to save; central banks themselves may have failed to properly explain their actions.

But there is a growing suspicion that part of problem may be negative rates themselves. Some economists and bankers contend that negative rates communicate fear over the growth outlook and the central bank’s ability to manage it.

“People only borrow and spend more when they are confident about the future,” says Andrew Sheets, chief cross-asset strategist at Morgan Stanley. “But by going negative, into uncharted territory, the policy actually undermines confidence.”

Going negative was a big bet by central banks faced with a sluggish recovery from the financial crisis. Whether negative rates succeed or flop has huge implications for the global economy. Japan and Europe are already doing large volumes of bond buying to spur their economies, and their central bankers have little left in their tool kits.

The U.S. Federal Reserve’s next move is likely to raise rates, but Chairwoman Janet Yellen has said negative rates could find a place in the Fed’s armory in any future crisis.

The Bank of England, shaken by June’s surprise vote to leave the European Union, cut interest rates to their lowest in its 322-year history last week but said it was reluctant to go negative.

BOE Gov. Mark Carney said he is “not a fan” of a policy that has negative consequences for savers and the financial system. European banks say their profitability has been hit hard by low rates.

Some central bankers say it is too early to judge negative rates. “The effect won’t be seen all at once, but it will gradually become clear,” said Bank of Japan Gov. Haruhiko Kuroda in a June news conference.

Benoît Coeuré, a member of the ECB’s executive board, in a July speech, said measures including negative interest rates, “are proving to be effective in lifting inflation toward its medium-term objective and reducing the overall level of risk in the economy.”

Low interest rates should encourage consumers and businesses to spend by depressing returns on savings and safe assets such as government bonds. Such spending should create demand for goods, help lift sagging inflation and boost economic growth.

Negative rates aren’t fundamentally different, in their day-to-day effects, for most people. Negative rates mean large commercial banks have to pay to park their money at central banks, which encourages them to lend it out instead. Banks spread those costs in various ways. For the individual or most corporate customers, the effect is to push interest rates paid on deposits, while still positive, even closer to zero.

Negative rates aren’t just aimed at spurring spending. Europe and Japan need weaker currencies to help exports and boost low inflation, and negative rates can help bring that about.

Some economists now believe negative rates can have an unintended psychological effect by communicating fear over the growth outlook and the central bank’s ability to manage it.

“The signal to the consumer is that something is wrong—it’s a crisis measure,” says Carl Hammer, chief currency strategist at Swedish bank SEB.

Lasse Bohman, a 63-year old newsstand worker from Stockholm, said the concept of negative interest rates is “weird” and makes him want to save more for retirement rather than spend. “I am just going to keep on putting money in the bank,” he says, or “put it under the mattress at home.”

In Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a nation known for thrift, savings as a percentage of disposable household income rose to 9.7% in 2015, according to preliminary data from the OECD. That is the highest rate since 2010, and the OECD expects the savings rate to rise further this year, to 10.4%.

Many Germans worry that negative rates pose a threat to their rainy-day funds. Four in 10 Germans cite the ECB’s monetary policy and low interest rates as their biggest concern when it comes to savings, according to a survey by the German Savings Banks Association last October.

In December, Ms. Hofmann, the Korschenbroich fruit vendor, used her Christmas bonus to buy two 10-gram bars of gold. She has since bought more and has put it, and every euro she can set aside, into a safe at home, saying she doesn’t trust banks. “Every time I check my savings account, it makes me want to cry,” she says.

In the broader eurozone, where saving isn’t as ingrained in the psyche as in Germany, the household savings rate has edged lower since negative interest rates were introduced in 2014.

The OECD forecasts the household-saving rate will increase this year in Japan, which introduced negative rates in February. Cash and deposits held by Japanese households were up 1.3% in the first quarter from the same period a year ago, according to the Bank of Japan.

In the U.S. and U.K., where interest rates are still positive but annualized growth rates in the year’s first quarter were slower than the eurozone or Japan, savings rates have been stable or trending lower.

Companies also are also holding on to funds, and some are forgoing cheap loans.

In Japan, cash and deposits held by nonfinancial corporations increased 8.4% in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to the Bank of Japan. That growth was the biggest since the 1990s.

Nonfinancial corporations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa had €921 billion in cash balances as of December 2015, according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service on the companies it rates, up about 5% from a year earlier. As a percentage of revenues, cash balances were 15% last year, versus 13% in 2014.

“This odd policy of negative interest rates hasn’t motivated us to invest more. On the contrary, it’s a signal that the economic situation isn’t improving,” says Hans-Gerd Wienands, chief financial officer of Messer Group, a German supplier of industrial gases.

The company has cut the amount it invests to 12.5% of revenue this year, from more than 20% in 2010, as it reduced debt.

In Japan, Tatsuro Takahashi, who sells barbecue pork from his food truck in Tokyo, said, “I’m not interested in borrowing money to expand my business, whether the rate is lower or not. It is riskier.”

Bank lending in Japan has expanded for 58 months in a row through July, but growth has slowed.

The Bank of Japan “failed to foresee people’s behavior,” said Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha University in Kyoto, in the magazine Weekly Economist. “It’s simply rational for them to increase savings.”

Household spending in Japan jumped 1.2% in February, the month the BOJ introduced negative rates, but fell the following four months.

Some say other factors are contributing to increased savings. In Germany, for instance, low inflation stemming from cheaper oil and tepid growth means that people have more money to put away simply because the stuff they buy costs less.

ECB President Mario Draghi says that after accounting for inflation, the rate that savers earn today is higher than it was on average in the 1990s.

Peter Praet, the ECB’s chief economist, says the focus should also be on borrowers, who are more inclined to spend than savers, and are seeing a boost to their disposable income because ultralow rates reduce the cost of servicing debt.

Other central-bank executives concede negative rates may push some to save. Yves Mersch, a member of the ECB’s executive board, said in June that it is possible “households are hoarding even more” because they need to save more to build up the same amount of wealth over the same time span.

Household spending as percentage of gross domestic product has fallen slightly in Germany to 54% last year, from 55.4% in 2013, according to OECD data. It also has fallen in Sweden, and is relatively flat in Denmark and Switzerland.

Interest payments on savings accounts in the eurozone are at the lowest levels since 2000, according to ECB data. In the early 1990s, it took nine years for a German saver to double his or her capital as interest income piled up, according to Hans Joachim Reinke, chief executive of Frankfurt-based Union Investment. Now, savers like Ms. Hofmann would have to wait 500 years for that to happen.

Negative rates have also hit pension payouts, giving older savers another reason to squirrel away more cash.

Pension funds and pensioners typically invest in government bonds in a quest for reliable income. That income has never been smaller. About $12 trillion worth of bonds currently have negative yields, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch European credit-strategy research, compared with almost none two years ago.

That is a problem for Henrik Olejasz Larsen, who as chief investment officer of Sampension manages pensions for Danish government employees. The return on assets that Sampension invests in has fallen as low as 0.2%, far from the 3.5% needed to maintain pension payouts at a level expected by their holders.

University of Michigan economist Miles Kimball believes rates should be lowered even deeper into negative territory. If people are getting scared by negative rates, he says, it is the fault of central banks’ inability to communicate effectively, not the policy itself.

“They should say that this is a normal tool of policy,” he says, “and then people wouldn’t freak out.”

—Charles Duxbury, Tom Fairless, Todd Buell and Takashi Nakamichi contributed to this article.

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