EU Makes History by Setting Negative Interest Rates

 Some of you may have seen headlines recently regarding the European Central Bank’s (ECB) move to set interest rates on deposits from 0% to -.10%.   This is the first time in history that a major global central bank has made a move like this.  It’s important to note that this negative interest rate does not directly apply to customers of EU banks who deposit their money in savings and checking accounts.  The ECB is only applying this negative interest rate on deposits that banks make with the ECB.  In other words, the ECB is trying to penalize banks for parking large sums of money with the central bank, rather than lending it to consumers.   

Why set negative interest rates?

What is the ECB hoping to accomplish?  To answer this question I need to provide a little background on what’s been going on lately in the European economy.  The European Union (EU) has been going through a period of disinflation lately and there is much worry that it may fall into deflation. Disinflation is a slowing in the rate of inflation.  In the instance of the EU, the central bank estimates that increases in the general prices of goods and services has slowed over the last 12 months from 1.6% to .49% (as of May of 2014). If this trend continues, the ECB worries that deflation could set in, which is a general decrease in the price of goods and services.

What’s so bad about deflation?

Now this might not sound bad to many readers. After all, if the price of gas goes from $3.80 down to $2.80 that’s great, right? However, if companies aren’t making as much money on their products, they have to cut costs elsewhere in order to maintain the bottom line, and that ultimately means lower wages for workers. Which means less discretionary income to spend and the economy can get caught in a deflationary trap that can be hard to get out of.  

The hope is that setting a negative interest rate will stimulate lending and therefore growth in the economy. This could lead to slightly increasing inflation, which most experts agree is a better option over the long term than deflation. Will it work?  Experts are divided on how effective this monetary policy will ultimately be on the European economy, but like many things, only time will tell. 

Matthew Trujillo, CFP®, is a Registered Support Associate at Center for Financial Planning, Inc. Matt currently assists Center planners and clients, and is a contributor to Money Centered.