Negative Rates Forever

The ECB seeks to set short term interest rates in the Euro Area via control over the amount of liquidity it supplies to the banking system, as the latter is required to observe a minimum reserve requirement, in turn related to the amount of customer deposits each bank holds. The current requirement is around €140bn in aggregate and currently banks have €3,000bn deposited with the ECB, implying excess liquidity of some €2,900bn. This will generally put downward presure on money market rates but there is a floor, in theory at least, which is the ECB’s Deposit rate, which has been in negative territory for over six years now . It was cut to -0.5% last September and if money market rates fell below that banks could borrow in the market and deposit back to the ECB at -0.5%, so this potential arbitrage will generally keep rates above the Deposit rate.

The scale of excess liquidity is such that rates are very close to that floor, nonetheless, with 3 -month euribor trading at -0.486% in recent days. Indeed one money market reference rate, the euro short term rate or €STR, is trading below the Deposit rate ( at -0.54%) because it includes non-bank borrowers, unlike the conventional euribor rates.

How long will these rates last? That ultimately depends on the ECB’s perception of the inflation outlook, but judging by expectations in the money market it will be years before we see a return to positive short term rates- the market is currently pricing in a 3 month rate of -0.125% in six years time. That may not transpire of course but as it stands it implies that rates are expected to be in negative territory for well over a decade, and not the short time period envisaged by the ECB when when embarking on that policy.

Does it matter? The standard ECB argument is that negative rates are just an extension of low rates and will eventually boost credit growth, economic activity and inflation. However, negative rates have put pressure on EA bank profitability in that they have indeed helped push down borrowing costs for households and businesses but , to date, at least, most banks have been reluctant to cut deposit rates for households by a similar amount, which would take them below zero. The ECB argues that this hit to bank margins can be offset by loan growth but negative rates send a signal to potential borrowers , implying a pretty dismal economic outlook and one not conducive to productive investment spending by the private sector. Of course if one also factors in the impact of the Covid pandemic it is difficult to see an explosion in credit growth any time soon.Not surprising , then, that EA banks trade well below their equivalents in the US in terms of equity valuation, with Irish banks at around 20% of their net asset value.

There are other issues, which will become increasinly pressing if negative rates are here for the long term. The ECB can provide liquidity but can’t direct where that goes and it may simply be used to bid up existing assets such as equities and real estate. Negative rates are also a massive challenge to the long established investment model of pension funds and wealth managers. That model envisaged say a 60-40 split betwen equities ( deemed higher risk) and bonds and cash but what happens to that model when the yield on the lower risk asset is actually negative ( as is the case with many EA government bonds) and where large deposits with a bank can be charged a negative rate. In other words a fund will lose money by holding cash in a bank or by lending it to the Government. This leads to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) case for taking more investment risk so pushing up equity valuations, real estate prices and lowering the yield on high risk corporate debt.

It is hard to see how the ECB can get out of the current situation, although it does seem reluctant to cut the deposit rate again, and the implicaions of negative rates for savers are not palatable. Commercial banks may well start to cut deposit rates into negative territory for household deposits with significant implications for high savings economies such as Ireland, where household deposits and currency exceeds debt by €21bn, and where deposits in Irish headquartered banks are €37bn higher than loans. The cost of borrowing for households is low, of course, and in Ireland that mainly flows into property but that is constrained by mortgage controls, which do not apply to institutional investors..