Denmark: Where negative interest rates are normal

All abnormal things usually look normal in Denmark (and also in its Nordic countries). Most economics textbooks are just plain biased suggesting that only US model can work. Denmark/Nordic countries might just be discussed (and rubbished) in a box somewhere if at all. Now I am not advocating the Nordic model of high tax/high welfare. Just that things are way too biased in economic teaching. There are alternate economic models of growth which are barely discussed.

As negative interest rates are seen as abnormal everywhere, things are pretty normal in Danes’ land which has had -ve rates for a while now:

In Copenhagen, bicycles take undisputed priority over cars and even pedestrians. A sizzling restaurant scene has made foodie fetishes of moss, live ants, and sea cucumbers. Despite a minimum wage not far below $20 an hour and some of the world’s steepest taxes, unemployment is almost the lowest in Europe. Parents happily leave infants unattended in strollers on the sidewalk while they stop in to cafes.

Clearly the usual rules tend not to apply in Denmark. So it’s no surprise that the country in recent years has added a major new entry to its sprawling repertoire of eccentricities: Since 2012 it’s been a place where you can get paid to borrow money and charged to save it.

Scandinavia’s third-largest economy (the population is 5 million, and there are about as many bikes) is deep into an unprecedented experiment with negative interest rates, a monetary policy tool once viewed by mainstream economists as approaching apostasy, if not a virtual impossibility. Companies—though not yet individuals—are paying lenders for the privilege of keeping funds on deposit; homeowners, in some cases, are actually making money on mortgages.

Most private-sector forecasters don’t expect Denmark’s central bank to go positive again until 2018 at the earliest, making the country a long-term petri dish for what happens when the laws of financial gravity are inverted. Although some dovish economists have advocated negative rates as a salve for deflation and anemic growth, if Econ 101 is to be believed they should have stomach-churning consequences: asset bubbles, capital flight, and the frenetic manufacture of very heavy vaults to hold money pulled from banks.

Central bankers looking to Denmark for evidence of such trauma aren’t likely to see much. If anything, they might find the Danes’ approach tempting. A certain amount of financial weirdness aside, their country is mostly free of the distortions economic theory tells us to expect, suggesting negative rates may deserve to move from taboo to the standard monetary policy toolbox.

This does not mean -ve rates are all good. It is just that things are not as bad as they are made out to be either.

That might be the wrong lesson to draw. Instead, the takeaway may be that negative rates can work—but only for some purposes and perhaps only if you’re Denmark. “It’s not the catastrophe that some people would have thought,” says Erik Nielsen, a Dane and the global chief economist at UniCredit. “But you’re playing with fire.”

There is an ongoing construction boom being attributed to these -ve rates as banks pay you to take loans. Not sure about this. There are construction booms even in high positive rate scenario. Somehwere down the line, economics of real estate is out of the window. Just keeps moving between boom and bust.

The real issue is if these rates become a long term option:

Beltoft’s concern: What happens if negative rates move from medium-term peculiarity to long-term reality, reversing the fundamental principles of debt and savings in a way that makes the change seem permanent? Since the Code of Hammurabi legislated interest rates in the 18th century B.C., and perhaps much earlier, capital has had a cost; in modern Denmark, it often doesn’t. “I believe it will change the psychology,” Beltoft says. “That could be dangerous.”

Berg puts his apprehension about staying below zero indefinitely in terms that Danes, who cram the country’s white-sand beaches in the brief Nordic summer, can easily understand. “There’s a difference between standing on the beach in dry sand and moving into the water,” he says. “The further you go out, and the longer you stay there, the more problems you can run into.”

It is normal to be abnormal now..

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