Bernanke says Fed likely to add negative interest rates to recession-fighting tool kit


The Federal Reserve should consider using negative rates to counter the next serious downturn, said former chairman Ben Bernanke in an interview with MarketWatch.

“I think negative rates are something the Fed will and probably should consider if the situation arises,” Bernanke said.

Former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder urged the Fed during the financial crisis to set negative interest rates for overnight deposits — essentially charging banks a fee to park funds at the central bank.

Blinder argued this would force banks to find more productive uses for the money.

Bernanke and his colleagues opted not to push interest rates below zero, worried that the costs outweighed the benefits. In particular, there was a concern that money-market funds wouldn’t be able to recover management fees.

But experience in Europe has shown this fear was unfounded.

In the region, the European Central Bank, the Swiss National Bank and the central banks of Denmark and Sweden have deployed negative rates to some degree.

For instance, earlier this month, the ECB cut its deposit rate to negative 0.3% from negative 0.2%.

Bernanke said he was surprised by how negative rates have been able to fall in Europe.

Bernanke suggested negative rates can’t be the Fed’s primary tool to combat a recession.

“The scope for negative nominal rates is fairly limited,” he said.

At some point, people begin to hoard cash, which has a zero interest rate, he noted. And quirks in the U.S. financial system also limit the utility of negative rates, he said.

Bernanke said he hadn’t heard anecdotes of ordinary people being affected in Europe, as personal checking accounts are not paying negative rates.

[Full Marketwatch/Bernankey interview here]

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