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In this article, I take a theoretical look at negative interest rates as a means to stimulate the economy. I identify key factors that may influence the volume of deposits held in the economy. I then empirically describe the unique situation of negative interest rates. I delve into the asymmetries that exist in the relationship between deposits and interest rates, considering Sweden as an example case.

As the global economy sags, with many regions in or teetering on the brink of recession, central banks are looking for new ways to boost economic activity and stave off deflation. The first approach attempted in the wake of the global financial crisis was quantitative easing, which arguably enjoyed some modest success in the US but which was viewed (fairly or unfairly) as a failure in various other important jurisdictions around the world.

More recently, a few countries have tried a new tack that involves charging banks for depositing reserve funds in the vaults of the central bank. Such policies have been implemented in Japan, which has been a pioneer in the use of radical monetary stimulation techniques; the eurozone; Switzerland; Denmark; and Sweden. The possibility that the US could chart a similar course cannot be easily dismissed.

On the asset side of the balance sheet, such a move is likely to have symmetric effects on commercial bank activity. With zero or razor-thin deposit rates, interest revenue earned by banks has been commensurately squeezed. One would expect this process to be further enhanced as monetary authorities push deeper into negative territory in a bid to boost their moribund economies.

The liabilities side provides an entirely different set of challenges. Banks want to maintain a consistent deposit base so they do not need to tap other more expensive sources of capital to fund their activities. They also want to carefully control the interest and noninterest costs of retaining these depositors, especially given the tight profit margins imposed from the asset side of the ledger. Bear in mind that many large banks are restricted from increasing the riskiness of their asset holdings due to the firm grip being applied by regulators in every advanced economy around the world.

Banks want to maintain a consistent deposit base so they can avoid using other, more expensive sources of capital to fund their activities.

Serious questions emerge regarding the effect of negative central bank deposit rates on the volume of deposits actually held. If, under negative rates, households and businesses continue to demand bank services to store their accumulated wealth in a risk-free manner, banks will be able to divert their attention to more profitable lending activities. Some, though, fear that negative rates will cause an exodus of depositors, forcing banks to raise capital from other places or to curtail their money-making operations. This paper seeks to cast some light on these issues from a macroeconomic perspective.

Building on Previous Research

Moody's Analytics has previously engaged in numerous studies of the effect of stressed economies on the aggregate deposit base. For example, Hughes1 looked at developing CCAR-style stress testing models for total US deposits in various categories. While the mix of deposits held in a range of products is acutely affected by macroeconomic effects, the overall level of funds held by banks tends to be only marginally impacted by generic macro stress. Recessions do cause growth to slow, but typically with quite a long lag. Lower interest rates, holding all else equal, tend to push clients away from CDs and term deposits in favor of more convenient forms of on-demand services. "Deposit recessions" – situations where overall volumes actually shrink – are very difficult to generate even under extreme macroeconomic duress.

"Deposit recessions," in which overall volumes actually shrink, are very rare even under extreme macroeconomic duress.

In a similar vein, Hughes and Poi2 extended this analysis to an individual institution with a long history of high-quality deposit data (North Carolina State Employees Credit Union). They found that account funds held by such an institution are likely to also grow in the midst of a recession, though pricing of services relative to the market plays an important role in determining the size of the slice eventually retained by the institution in question.

In a more pointed analysis, Poi, Malone, Hughes, and Zandi3 considered the effect of quantitative easing policies (and their subsequent reversal) on the deposit base held by US and Japanese banks. Using a variety of champion and challenger models for both jurisdictions, they found only marginal overall effects of the radical policies on the size of the deposit pie. The implication is that if central banks want to "push on the string" in a very low interest rate environment, or to remove said impetus from said ligature, it will have little overall effect on bank holdings of deposits.

The analysis in this paper should be viewed as an extension of earlier work.

We will begin by taking a theoretical look at the problem of negative rates and try to identify key factors that may influence the volume of deposits held in the economy. This discussion will then be used to guide an empirical study that will seek to tease out the asymmetries that exist in the relationship between deposits and interest rates. We will follow a similar approach to that used by Poi et al. and seek to identify the most useful test case for empirical analysis. Specifically, here we will consider the case of Sweden, mainly because the Riksbank was the first to employ negative rates as a key plank in its monetary policy back in 2009. Sweden is unique in that there were two distinct instances of negative deposit rates with a brief intervening period of positive rates. Poi et al. used Japan for the same reasons in their consideration of the impact of QE on overall deposit behavior.

Theoretical Analysis

In their economic activities, businesses and households generate stores of wealth. Part of this is then reinvested in risky ventures (like stocks and property) to generate additional future income streams. The dictates of a balanced portfolio and risk hedging then demand that part of the store of wealth be held in relatively riskless investment forms such as cash, government bonds, and insured bank deposits.

In a negative interest rate environment, it is safe to assume that the real economy is performing poorly. This implies both that the overall wealth generation engine is sputtering and that the range of available attractive, risky investment options is limited. The upshot of this, holding all else equal, is that investors will tend, at the margin, to retrench their risky investments but retain a high demand for the risk-free options. Though the overall wealth pie may be shrinking or stagnant, the riskless slice will tend to grow in scale throughout the period of real economic misfortune.

Figure 1. Effects of interest rates on various deposit types
Effects of interest rates on various deposit types
Source: Moody's Analytics

If interest rates on short-term government bonds and bank deposits are zero, in theory, people will be indifferent between holding cash, bonds, or deposits. If interest rates on bonds and deposits are negative, again in theory, people will retrench their holdings of these assets and seek to store their accumulated wealth in the form of cash. Pieces of paper depicting dead presidents always earn precisely zero percent annual interest regardless of any actions pursued by the central bank.

This simple analysis assumes that holding cash is as riskless as holding insured deposits.

Some media speculation has picked up on these theoretical musings, often with a comedic bent. The authors will opine about the likelihood of companies and/or households withdrawing all their funds and putting $100 bills in tin cans to be buried in the garden. Such activities carry a variety of risks that belie the notion that cash is a riskless way to store wealth. Mattresses can burn, treasure maps can be stolen, and buried notes can suffer water damage or be forgotten. On a more practical level, for households in the modern age, paychecks are electronically deposited and bills are paid automatically by remote computers. It is hard to imagine anyone with a measure of accumulated savings ever truly going off the banking grid.

Figure 2. Regression results: Demand deposits
Regression results: Demand deposits
Source: Moody's Analytics

For businesses and companies, the operational meshing with banks is even more extreme than it is for households.

Figure 3. Regression results: Small time and savings deposits
Regression results: Small time and savings deposits
Source: Moody's Analytics

Moreover, imagine for a moment that Apple, which reportedly holds more than $200 billion in cash reserves, decided to avoid paying the negative interest rate deposit charges imposed by their bankers and to instead bury 200 tons of $100 banknotes in the hills of Cupertino. Now imagine the meeting taking place between Apple's CFO and the company's army of external auditors.

It's just never going to happen.

Given that a range of unobserved risks and operational rigidities associated with holding cash remains, the question of the impact of negative rates on deposit holdings is squarely empirical in nature. We will consider other theoretical musings – notably the effect of the carry trade – in our empirical discussion of the Swedish economy.

Empirical Findings

For a variety of technical and policy reasons, and due to a severe recession, the overnight deposit rate in Sweden first entered negative territory in the summer of 2009. As GDP growth bounced, the rate was then lifted in late 2010, though this move was highly controversial at the time due to the severe recession that was continuing to rage across much of Europe. The doubters were then proved right as economic clouds once more engulfed Sweden. Renewed recession led to a resumption of the negative rate policy in the summer of 2014. This situation remains in place today.

The set of circumstances endured by the Swedes sets up an ideal test case for an assessment of negative rates. The most important feature is that we observe two substantial, distinct periods during which the external policy treatment was applied, as well as two separate baseline periods during which more normal operations were undertaken. Moreover, the controversy regarding the initial removal of the policy in 2010 implies that the action can be viewed as exogenously undertaken by monetary authorities. Data sourced from Statistics Sweden is of high quality, with a long history allowing precise modeling to proceed. Regression results used for the following analysis are included in the accompanying figures.

Figure 4. Regression results: Large time deposits
Regression results: Large time deposits
Source: Moody's Analytics

We identify various deposit categories by decomposing statistics for monetary aggregates. Sweden publishes M0 through M3 – four separate categories that progressively aggregate longer-duration forms of bank deposits. The M0 category is very narrowly defined, incorporating highly liquid forms of central bank deposits, banknotes, and coins. M1 adds in deposits available on demand; M2 adds small time deposits and other forms of savings accounts; and M3 adds large time deposits typically owned by corporations and wealthy individuals. We therefore interpret M1-M0 as "demand deposits," M2-M1 as "small time/savings deposits," and M3-M2 as "large time deposits."

We augment this data using information regarding interest rates at a variety of terms. We seek to control for longer end yield curve dynamics that will allow us to focus our attention on the specific effects of the overnight deposit rate. Importantly, we also consider external channels through which the Swedish economy may interact with other countries and regions. To do this, we include net exports of goods and services, the exchange rate of the krona with the euro, and a variety of prevailing European interest rates.

This set of variables allows us to consider the effect of the carry trade on the behavior of domestic deposits. If safe returns at home are elusive, one option available to depositors involves investing their funds in a foreign currency-denominated account in which positive interest will be paid. Such investments carry exchange rate risk, but these potential misfortunes are sometimes adequately compensated by the available interest rate differential. The carry trade is generally considered an important dynamic in Japan's battle with deflation during the early 2000s. In the current environment, where rates are low everywhere, we should expect the carry trade to be far less prominent. Nevertheless, we are happy to sacrifice a couple of degrees of freedom to control for its potential impact in the work presented here.

The final set of controls focuses on the real domestic economy. In a nutshell, we give Swedish households and businesses the option of consuming their deposits or of reinvesting their savings in more risky forms of investment. These macroeconomic factors enter our models with a lag to stave off any accusations of potential endogeneity.

We transform all control variables to ensure an absence of unit roots.

Our primary focus here is in assessing the symmetry of the observed relationships between short-term policy rates and various deposit categories. We create a dummy variable that is generally zero but switches to unity if negative deposit rates prevail within the Swedish monetary system at the time. The third variable of key interest is an interaction between the deposit rate and the dummy.

Negative interest rates seemingly cause a slight – but statistically significant – reduction in total deposits held.

If the marginal effect of a change in rates is the same on either side of the zero frontier, the parameter on the interaction term in our regression will be precisely zero. Statistically, therefore, we can test the hypothesis that this phenomenon prevails in the data by using a t-test on the estimated coefficient in the model. Similarly, the inclusion of the dummy variable allows us to consider the specific marginal effect involved with crossing the zero frontier. If the act of moving from positive to negative rates causes a change in deposit behavior we will observe a level shift in the deposit growth rate as this unfolds. The included figures display the key regression results.

Across the range of positive deposit rates, the behavior of the key marginal effects is in line with our prior expectations. All three deposit categories are sensitive to rate shifts such that rate increases tend to accelerate the growth rate of underlying deposits. Of the three categories, again as expected, demand deposits are the least sensitive to rate changes across the positive part of the number line.

As the zero frontier is hit, large time and demand deposits both shift lower, though the latter effect is not statistically significant at the 5% level. Small time/savings deposits, meanwhile, do not suffer a noticeable level shift.

For all time deposits, the intuitive effect of an increase in rates continues to hold on the negative side of the zero rate boundary. For large time deposits, abstracting from the presence of the level shift, the effect of rates is symmetric in the sense that marginal rate changes have the same deposit growth impact on either side of zero. Going from, say, -1% to -2% will have the same growth implications for large time deposits as moving from 2% to 1%. For small time deposits, meanwhile, the rates effect is more pronounced on the negative side, implying that small time depositors become hypersensitive to rate cuts that make such holdings commensurately more expensive.

Things get really interesting when we consider demand deposits. After noting the slight downshift in such instruments when the zero mark is crossed, we can further observe demand deposit volumes tending to increase with further short-term rate cuts. Because demand deposits represent around 80% of all Swedish holdings, it is this effect that is the most economically significant of the findings across the three separate categories.

As rates fall further below zero, total deposits held by banks actually increase!

This is the most interesting finding of the empirical research. Though it is true that negative rates sap the performance of term deposits, the funds repatriated from this process do not do so in the form of cash. Rather, they exit in the form of demand deposits.

For banks, there are two implications of these findings. One is that crossing the frontier seemingly causes a slight – but statistically significant – reduction in total deposits held. For Sweden, this initial effect amounted to around 4% of the total deposit base. As further rate cuts are effected, though, part of this reduction can be clawed back in the form of perhaps higher than anticipated growth in demand deposits. The second implication is that the duration of the deposit book will tend to decline as funds are moved out of term deposits and CDs into vehicles that allow funds to be drawn instantly.

Conclusion

Radical central bank policy changes are rarely welcomed by bankers. With the global economy still trying to shake off the lingering effects of the Great Recession more than seven years post-Lehman Brothers, it is little wonder that monetary authorities are seeking new directions in their stimulative efforts. Recently, this push has moved in the direction of punishing savers for holding risk-free investment forms. Such an unprecedented move has banks worried for the safety of their deposit holdings.

In a series of papers, Moody's Analytics has explored the empirical effects of radical policy shifts on deposits. In general, it is observed that such moves often have a significant impact on the form of deposits but not an especially large effect on their scale. The findings of this paper are fully consistent with these observations. Though negative rates will cause term holdings to shrink, this effect will be more than offset by a rise in demand deposits.

Footnotes

1 Hughes, Anthony, Deposit Stress Testing, Moody's Analytics whitepaper, June 2013.

2 Hughes & Poi, Improved Deposit Modeling: Using the Moody's Analytics Pre-Provision Net Revenue Factors Library to Augment Internal Data, Moody's Analytics whitepaper, July 2015.

3 Hughes, Malone, Poi, & Zandi, Quantitative Easing and Bank Deposits, Moody's Analytics whitepaper, October 2015.

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