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The Negative Natural Interest Rate and Uneconomic Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn a recent speech to the International Monetary Fund economist Larry Summers argued that since near zero interest rates have not stimulated GDP growth sufficiently to reach full employment, we probably need a negative interest rate. By this he means a negative monetary rate set by the Fed to equal the “natural” rate, which he believes is now negative. The natural rate, as Summers uses the term, means the rate that would equalize planned saving with planned investment, and thereby, as Keynes taught us, result in full employment. With near zero monetary rates, current inflation already pushes us to a negative real rate of interest, but that is still insufficiently negative, in Summers’ view, to equalize planned investment with planned saving and thereby stimulate GDP growth sufficient for full employment. A negative interest rate is a stunning proposal, and it takes some effort to work out its implications.

Suppose for a moment that GDP growth, economic growth as we gratuitously call it, entails uneconomic growth by a more comprehensive measure of costs and benefits — that GDP growth has now begun to increase counted plus uncounted costs by more than counted plus uncounted benefits, making us inclusively and collectively poorer, not richer. If that is the case, and there are good reasons to believe that it is, would it not then be reasonable to expect, along with Summers, that the natural rate of interest is negative, and that maybe the monetary rate should be too? This is hard to imagine, but it means that savers would have to pay investors (and banks) to use the funds that they have saved, rather than investors and banks paying savers for the use of their money. To keep the GDP growing sufficiently to avoid unemployment we would need a growing monetary circular flow, which would require more investment, which, in turn, would only be forthcoming if the monetary interest rate were negative (i.e., if you lost less by investing your money than by holding it). A negative interest rate “makes sense” if the goal is to keep on increasing GDP even after it has begun to make us poorer at the margin — that is after growth has already pushed us beyond the optimal scale of the macro-economy relative to the containing ecosphere, and thereby become uneconomic.

A negative monetary interest rate means that citizens will spend rather than save, so savings will not be available to finance the investments that produce the GDP growth needed for full employment. The new money for investment comes from the Fed. Quantitative easing (money printing) is the source of the new money. The faith is that an ever-expanding monetary circulation will pull the real economy along behind it, providing growth in real income and jobs as previously idle resources are employed. But the resulting GDP growth is now uneconomic because in the full world the “idle” resources are not really idle — they are providing vital ecosystem services. Redeploying these resources to GDP growth has environmental and social opportunity costs that are greater than production benefits. Although hyper-Keynesian macroeconomists do not believe this, the micro actors in the real economy experience the constraints of the full world, and consequently find it difficult to follow the unlimited growth recipe.

Summers (along with other mainstream growth economists), does not accept the concept of optimal scale of the macro-economy, nor the possibility of uneconomic growth in the sense that growth in resource throughput could reduce net wealth and wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is at least consistent with his view that the natural rate of interest is negative.

A positive interest rate restricts the total volume of investment but allocates it to the most productive projects. A negative interest rate increases volume, but allows investment in practically anything, increasing the probability that growth will be uneconomic. Shall we become hyper-Keynesians and push GDP growth to maintain full employment, even after growth has become uneconomic? Or shall we back off from growth and seek full employment by job sharing, distributive equity, and reallocation toward leisure and public goods?

Why would we allow growth to carry the macro-economy beyond the optimal scale? Because growth in GDP is considered the summum bonum, and it is heresy not to advocate increasing it. If increasing GDP makes us worse off we will not admit it, but will adapt to the experience of increased scarcity by pushing GDP growth further. Non-growth is viewed as “stagnation,” not as a sensible steady state adaptation to objective limits. Stimulating GDP growth by increasing consumption and investment, while cutting savings, is the only way that hyper-Keynesians can think of to serve the worthy goal of full employment. There really are other ways, and people really do need to save for security and old age, as well as for maintenance and replacement of the existing capital stock. Yet the Fed is being advised to penalize saving with a negative interest rate. The focus is on what the growth model requires, not on what people need.

A negative interest rate seems also to be the latest advice from Paul Krugman, who praises Summers’ insights. It is understandable from their viewpoint because in their vision the economy is not a subsystem, or if it is, it is infinitesimal relative to the total system. The economy can expand forever, either into the void or into a near infinite environment. It does not grow into a finite ecosphere, and therefore has no optimal scale relative to any constraining and sustaining environment. Its aggregate growth incurs no opportunity cost and can never be uneconomic. Unfortunately, this tacit assumption of the growth model is seriously wrong.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Welcome to the full-world economy. In the old empty-world economy, assumed in the macro models of Summers and Krugman, growth always remains economic, so they advocate printing more and more dollars to expand the economy to take over ever more of the “unemployed” sources and sinks of the ecosystem. If a temporary liquidity trap or zero lower bound on interest rates keeps the new money from being spent, then low or even negative monetary interest rates will open the spending spigot. The empty world assumption guarantees that the newly expanded production will always be worth more than the natural wealth it displaces. But what may well have been true in yesterday’s empty world is no longer true in today’s full world.

This is an upsetting prospect for growth economists — growth is required for full employment, but growth now makes us collectively poorer. Without growth we would have to cure poverty by redistributing wealth and stabilizing population, two political anathemas, and could only finance investment by reducing present consumption, a third anathema. There remains the microeconomic policy of reallocating the same GDP to a more efficient mix of products by internalizing external costs (getting prices right). While this certainly should be done, it is not macroeconomic growth as pursued by the Fed.

These painful choices could be avoided if only we were richer. So let’s just focus on getting richer. How? By growing the aggregate GDP, of course! What? You repeat that GDP growth is now uneconomic? That cannot possibly be right, they say. OK, that is an empirical question. Let’s separate costs from benefits in the existing GDP accounts, and develop more inclusive measures of each, and then see which grows more as GDP grows. This has been done (ISEW, GPI, Ecological Footprint), and results support the uneconomic growth view. If growth economists think these studies were done badly they should do them better rather than ignore the issue.

The leftover Keynesians are correct in pointing out that there is unemployed labor and capital. But natural resources are fully employed, indeed overexploited, and the limiting factor in the full world is natural resources, not labor or capital as used to be the case in the empty world. Some growth economists think that the world is still empty. Others think there is no limiting factor — that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. This is wrong, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has shown long ago. Capital funds and natural resource flows are complements, not substitutes, and the one in short supply is limiting. Increasing a non-limiting factor doesn’t help. Growth economists should know this.

Although the growthists think quantitative easing will stimulate demand they are disappointed, even in terms of their own model, because the banks, who are supposed to lend the new money, encounter a “lack of bankable projects,” to use World Bank terminology. This of course should be expected in the new era of uneconomic growth. The new money, rather than calling forth new wealth by employing all these hypothetical idle resources from the empty world era, simply bids up existing asset prices in the full world. Most asset prices are not counted in the consumer price index, (not to mention exclusion of food and energy) so economists unconvincingly claim that quantitative easing has not been inflationary, and therefore they can keep doing it. And even if it causes some inflation, that would help make the interest rate negative.

Aside from needed electronic transaction balances, people would not keep money in the bank if the interest rate were negative. To make them do so, the alternative of cash would basically have to be eliminated, and all money would be electronic bank deposits. This intensifies central bank control, and the specter of “bail-ins” (confiscations of deposits) as occurred in Cyprus. Even as distrust of money increases, people will not immediately revert to barter, in spite of negative interest rates. Barter is so inconvenient that money remains more efficient even if it loses value at a rapid rate, as we have seen in several hyperinflations. But transactions balances will be minimized, and speculative and store-of value-balances will be diverted to real estate, gold, works of art, tulip bulbs, Bitcoins, and beanie babies, creating speculative bubbles. But not to worry, say Summers and Krugman, bubbles are a necessary, if regrettable, means to boost spending and growth in the era of newly recognized negative natural interest rates — and still unrecognized uneconomic growth.

A bright silver lining to this cloud of confusion is that the recognition of a negative natural interest rate may be the prelude to recognition of the underlying uneconomic growth as its cause. For sure this has not yet happened because so far the negative natural interest rate is seen as a reason to push growth with a negative monetary interest rate, rather than as a signal that growth has become a losing game. But such a realization is a reasonable hope. Perhaps a step in this direction is Summers’ suggestion that the old Alvin Hansen thesis of secular stagnation might deserve a new look.

The logic that suggests negative interest also suggests negative wages as a further means of increasing investment by lowering costs. To maintain full employment via GDP growth, not only must the interest rate now be negative, but wages should become negative as well. No one yet advocates negative wages because subsistence provides an inconvenient lower positive bound below which workers die. On this “other side of the looking glass” the logic of uneconomic growth pushes us in the direction of a negative “natural” wage, just as with a negative “natural” rate of interest. So we artificially lower the wage costs to “job creators” by subsidizing below-subsistence wages with food stamps, housing subsidies, and unpaid internships. Negative interest rates also subsidize investment in job-replacing capital equipment, further lowering wages. Negative interest rates, and below-subsistence wages, further subsidize the uneconomic growth that gave rise to them in the first place.

The leftover Keynesians tell us, reasonably enough, that paying people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up, is better than leaving them unemployed with no income. But paying people to deplete and pollute the Creation on which our lives and welfare ultimately depend, in order to expand the macro-economy beyond its optimal or even sustainable scale, is surely worse than just giving them a minimum income, and some leisure time, in exchange for doing no harm.

An artificial monetary rate of interest forced down by quantitative easing to equal a negative natural rate of interest resulting from uneconomic growth is not a solution. It is just baling wire and duct tape. But it is all that even our best and brightest economists can come up with as long as they are imprisoned in the empty world growth model. The way out of this trap is to recognize that the growth era is over, and that instead of forcing growth into uneconomic territory we must seek to maintain a steady-state economy at something approximating the optimal scale. Since we have overshot the optimal scale of the macro-economy, this will require a period of retrenchment to a reduced level, accompanied by much more equal sharing, frugality, and efficiency. Sharing means putting limits on the range of inequality that we permit; it has huge moral and social benefits, even if politically difficult. Frugality means using less resource throughput; it results in less depletion and pollution and more recycling and efficiency. Efficiency means squeezing more life-support and want-satisfaction from a given throughput by technological advance and by improvement in our ethical priorities. Economists need to replace the Keynesian-neoclassical growth synthesis with a new version of the classical stationary state.

Nationalize Money, Not Banks

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIf our present banking system, in addition to fraudulent and corrupt, also seems “screwy” to you, it should. Why should money, a public utility (serving the public as medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account), be largely the byproduct of private lending and borrowing? Is that really an improvement over being a by-product of private gold mining, as it was under the gold standard? The best way to sabotage a system is hobble it by tying together two of its separate parts, creating an unnecessary and obstructive connection. Why should the public pay interest to the private banking sector to provide a medium of exchange that the government can provide at little or no cost? And why should seigniorage (profit to the issuer of fiat money) go largely to the private sector rather than entirely to the government (the commonwealth)?

Is there not a better away? Yes, there is. We need not go back to the gold standard. Keep fiat money, but move from fractional reserve banking to a system of 100% reserve requirements on demand deposits. Time deposits (savings accounts) would have zero or minimal reserve requirements and would be available to lend to borrowers. The change need not be abrupt — we could gradually raise the reserve requirement to 100%. Already the Fed has the authority to change reserve requirements but seldom uses it. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage entirely with the government rather than largely with private banks. Banks would no longer be able to live the alchemist’s dream by creating money out of nothing and lending it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements for demand deposits.

Banks cannot create money under 100% reserves (the reserve deposit multiplier would be unity), and banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings or “time-account” depositors) and charging for checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a time account depositor (and not available to the depositor during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully — no more easy credit to finance the leveraged purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

Why are private banks controlling this public utility? Photo credit: Steve Rhodes

Why are private banks controlling this public utility? Photo credit: Steve Rhodes

To make up for the decline and eventual elimination of bank-created, interest-bearing money, the government can pay some of its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public voluntarily wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar.

The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates. Alternatively, if we instituted Keynes’ international clearing union, the external value of the dollar, along with that of all other currencies, could be set relative to the bancor, a common denominator accounting unit used by the payments union. The bancor would serve as an international reserve currency for settling trade imbalances — a kind of “gold substitute.”

The United States opposed Keynes’ plan at Bretton Woods precisely because under it the dollar would not function as the world’s reserve currency, and the U.S. would lose the enormous international subsidy that results from all countries having to hold large transaction balances in dollars. The payments union would settle trade balances multilaterally. Each country would have a net trade balance with the rest of the world (with the payments union) in bancor units. Any country running a persistent deficit would be charged a penalty, and if continued would have its currency devalued relative to the bancor. But persistent surplus countries would also be charged a penalty, and if the surplus persisted their currency would suffer an appreciation relative to the bancor. The goal is balanced trade, and both surplus and deficit nations would be expected to take measures to bring their trade into balance. With trade in near balance there would be little need for a world reserve currency, and what need there was could be met by the bancor. Freely fluctuating exchange rates would also in theory keep trade balanced and reduce or eliminate the need for a world reserve currency. Which system would be better is a complicated issue not pursued here. In either case the IMF could be abolished since there would be little need for financing trade imbalances (the IMF’s main purpose) in a regime whose goal is to eliminate trade imbalances.

Returning to domestic institutions, the Treasury would replace the Fed (which is owned by and operated in the interests of the commercial banks). The interest rate would no longer be a target policy variable, but rather left to market forces. The target variables of the Treasury would be the money supply and the price index. The treasury would print and spend into circulation for public purposes as much money as the public voluntarily wants to hold. When the price index begins to rise it must cease printing money and finance any additional public expenditures by taxing or borrowing from the public (not from itself). The policy of maintaining a constant price index effectively gives the fiat currency the “backing” of the basket of commodities in the price index.

In the 1920s the leading academic economists, Frank Knight of Chicago and Irving Fisher of Yale, along with others including underground economist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Frederick Soddy, strongly advocated a policy of 100% reserves for commercial banks. Why did this suggestion for financial reform disappear from discussion? The best answer I have found is that the Great Depression and subsequent Keynesian emphasis on growth swept it aside, because limiting lending (borrowing) to actual savings (a key feature of 100% reserves) was considered too restrictive on growth, which had become the big panacea. Saving more, even with the intent to invest more, would require reduced present consumption, and that too has been deemed an unacceptable drag on growth. As long as growth is the summum bonum then we will find ways to borrow against future wealth in order to finance the present investment needed to maximize growth.

Why would full reserve banking not crash on the rock of the growth obsession again, as it did before? One answer is that we might recognize that aggregate growth today increases unmeasured illth faster than measured wealth, thereby becoming uneconomic growth. How can loans be repaid out of the net illth they generate? Should we not welcome full reserve banking as a needed financial restraint on growth (uneconomic growth)? Another answer is that, thanks to financial meltdowns, the commercial banks’ private creation of money by lending it at interest has now become more obvious and odious to the public. More than in the 1930s, fractional reserve banking has become a clear and present danger, as well as a massive subsidy to commercial banks.

Real growth has encountered the biophysical and social limits of a full world. Financial growth is being stimulated ever more in the hope that it will pull real growth behind it, but it is in fact pushing uneconomic growth — net growth of illth. Quantitative easing of the money supply does nothing to counteract the quantitative tightening of resource limits on the growth of the real economy.

The original 100% reserve proponents mentioned above were in favor of aggregate growth, but wanted it to be steady growth in wealth, not speculative boom and bust cycles. One need not advocate a steady-state economy to favor 100% reserves, but if one does favor a steady state then the attractions of 100% reserves are increased. Soddy was especially cautious about uncontrolled physical growth, but his main concern was with the symbolic financial system and its disconnect from the real system that it was supposed to symbolize. As he put it: “You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy].” Wealth has a physical dimension and is subject to physical limits; debt is a purely mathematical quantity and is unlimited.

How would the 100% reserve system serve the steady-state economy?

First, as just mentioned it would restrict borrowing for new investment to existing savings, greatly reducing speculative growth ventures — for example the leveraging of stock purchases with huge amounts of borrowed money (created by banks ex nihilo rather than saved out of past earnings) would be severely limited. Down payment on houses would be much higher, and consumer credit would be greatly diminished. Credit cards would become debit cards. Long term lending would have to be financed by long term time deposits, or by carefully sequenced rolling over of shorter term deposits. Equity financing would increase relative to debt financing. Growth economists will scream, but a steady-state economy does not aim to grow, for the very good reason that aggregate growth has become uneconomic.

Second, the money supply no longer has to be renewed by new loans as old loans are repaid. A continuing stream of new loans requires that borrowers expect to invest in a project that will grow at a rate greater than the rate of interest. Unless that expectation is sustained by growth, they will not borrow, and in a fractional reserve system the money supply will shrink. With 100% reserves a constant money supply is neutral with respect to growth; with fractional reserves a constant money supply imparts a growth bias to the economy.

Third, the financial sector will no longer be able to capture such a large share of the nation’s profits (around 40%!), freeing some smart people for more productive, less parasitic, activity.

Fourth, the money supply would no longer expand during a boom, when banks like to loan lots of money, and contract during a recession, when banks try to collect outstanding debts, thereby reinforcing the cyclical tendency of the economy.

Fifth, with 100% reserves there is no danger of a run on a bank leading to a cascading collapse of the credit pyramid, and the FDIC could be abolished, along with its consequent moral hazard. The danger of collapse of the whole payment system due to the failure of one or two “too big to fail” banks would be eliminated. Congress then could not be frightened into giving huge bailouts to some banks to avoid the “contagion” of failure because the money supply is no longer controlled by the private banks. Any given bank could fail by making imprudent loans in excess of its capital reserves (as opposed to demand deposit reserves), but its failure, even if a large bank, would not disrupt the public utility function of money. The club that the banks used to beat Congress into giving bailouts would have been taken away.

Sixth, the explicit policy of a constant price index would reduce fears of inflation and the resultant quest to accumulate more as a protection against inflation. Also it in effect provides a multi-commodity backing to our fiat money.

Seventh, a regime of fluctuating exchange rates automatically balances international trade accounts, eliminating big surpluses and deficits. U.S. consumption growth would be reduced without its deficit; Chinese production growth would be reduced without its surplus. By making balance of payments lending unnecessary, fluctuating exchange rates (or Keynes’ international clearing union) would greatly shrink the role of the IMF and its “conditionalities.”

To dismiss such sound policies as “extreme” in the face of the repeatedly demonstrated colossal fraudulence of our current financial system is quite absurd. The idea is not to nationalize banks, but to nationalize money, which is a natural public utility in the first place. The fact that this idea is hardly discussed today, in spite of its distinguished intellectual ancestry and common sense, is testimony to the power of vested interests over good ideas. It is also testimony to the veto power that our growth fetish exercises over the thinking of economists today. Money, like fire and the wheel, is a basic invention without which the modern world is unthinkable. But today out-of-control money is threatening to “burn and run over” more people than both out-of-control fires and wheels.