Greg Mankiw on the Idea of Negative Interest Rates

Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw writes in a New York Times column about the idea and the possibility of negative interest rates. “The idea….may strike some people as absurd,” he writes. “Perhaps it is. But remember this: Early mathematicians thought that the idea of negative numbers was absurd. Today, these numbers are commonplace.”

Here are a few excerpts:

From The NYT: “In many ways today, the Fed is in uncharted waters.

So why shouldn’t the Fed just keep cutting interest rates? Why not lower the target interest rate to, say, negative 3 percent?

At that interest rate, you could borrow and spend $100 and repay $97 next year. This opportunity would surely generate more borrowing and aggregate demand.

The problem with negative interest rates, however, is quickly apparent: nobody would lend on those terms. Rather than giving your money to a borrower who promises a negative return, it would be better to stick the cash in your mattress. Because holding money promises a return of exactly zero, lenders cannot offer less.

Unless, that is, we figure out a way to make holding money less attractive…

[T]here is a more prosaic way of obtaining negative interest rates: through inflation. Suppose that, looking ahead, the Fed commits itself to producing significant inflation. In this case, while nominal interest rates could remain at zero, real interest rates — interest rates measured in purchasing power — could become negative. If people were confident that they could repay their zero-interest loans in devalued dollars, they would have significant incentive to borrow and spend.”

Prof. Mankiw also wrote a followup post on his » blog.

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