Starting today, the Royal Bank of Scotland will become the first bank in the U.K. to impose a negative interest rate on depositors. The negative rate will apply only to corporate customers, including mutual fund managers and pension funds, holding deposits of certain foreign currencies including euros. This means that RBS—in which the U.K. government still maintains a majority ownership stake since its 2008 bailout—will actually charge these customers to “borrow” their deposits. A few weeks ago, RBS notified more than one million small-business customers that they could also be charged for deposits if the Bank of England lowered the target interest rate, which now stands at .25%, into negative territory. Experts are warning that the latest move by RBS would “set alarm bells ringing” among small businesses and ordinary customers. The stage is set for a glorious and long overdue old-fashioned bank run if the BOE ventures to push rates into negative territory.
Meanwhile in the eurozone, since the ECB rate cut the interest rate in March to minus 0.4%, banks have paid a total of about 2.64 billion euros to keep their funds on deposit at the eurozone’s 19 central banks. With European central bankers threatening further rate cuts, private financial institutions are exploring the feasibility of circumventing the charges by converting central bank electronic deposit credits into cash and storing it in nonbank facilities. The German insurance company Munich Re is reportedly already storing tens of millions of euros at “a manageable cost,” and Commerzbank, Germany’s second biggest lender, is considering a similar option.
Of course any significant movement to convert bank reserves into cash would undermine the goal of central-bank rate cutting, because the cost of holding bank reserves in cold hard cash would not respond to a change in interest rates, short circuiting central bank efforts to stimulate further bank lending. More significant, if the movement to convert deposits into cash spreads to the nonbank public, it would bring down the fractional-reserve banking system in short order. And herein lies the real reason why prominent establishment economists are now leading the charge in the War on Cash. By abolishing cash, they seek to lock everyone’s money holdings into the fractional-reserve banking system and make the system completely run-proof for all time. This would preserve and strengthen the so-called “transmission mechanism” of monetary policy, whose central element is fractional-reserve bank lending, which creates new deposits out of thin air.
Not coincidentaly, Harvard and former IMF economist Kenneth Rogoff has just published a book a few days ago bearing the lurid title The Curse of Cash. The book garners effusive praise in back-cover endorsements from leading professional economists such as Ben Bernanke, Alan Blinder, and Michael Woodford. Rogoff reportedly calls for the abolition of all cash, not merely large-denomination notes. While admitting that cash has some advantages, Rogoff makes the sensational claim that the bulk of the $1.4 trillion of US currency in circulation is used to facilitate tax evasion and to finance illegal activities like human trafficking and terrorism. Oh yes—Rogoff also argues that a cashless economy would make monetary policy more efficient by preventing savers from hoarding cash whenever central bankers—advised by sage macroeconomists like Rogoff—decide that the “natural” or optimal rate of interest for the economy has become deeply negative.
Cash is a unambiguously a blessing to productive workers, savers, and entrepreneurs who wish to protect their hard earned money from the crazed theories and swindling schemes promoted by statists like Rogoff and the central bankers he advises.
Joseph T. Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.