Marshall's Thoughts

Japan’s Negative Interest Rates

Bai Xuantong

In recent years, negative interest rates have gained much attention in the financial world. Negative interest rates are an unconventional monetary policy tool that some central banks have used to stimulate their economies. One country that has experimented with negative interest rates is Japan, which has been facing deflationary pressures for many years. Japan’s negative interest rate policy impacts the economy and poses some economic challenges.

The Bank of Japan (BOJ) introduced a negative interest rate policy as part of its quantitative and qualitative monetary easing (QQE) program in January 2016. Under this policy, the BOJ charges a negative interest rate of -0.1% on excess reserves held by commercial banks at the central bank. Also, BOJ further announced that it would increase the existing plus/minus 0.25 percentage point range for variations in yields on 10-year Japanese government bonds to plus/minus 0.50 percentage points. The goal of this policy was to encourage banks to lend more money to businesses and households, thereby stimulating economic growth and inflation.

The negative interest rate policy had some immediate effects on the Japanese economy. One of the most significant was the yen depreciation, which made Japanese exports more competitive in the global market. This, in turn, boosted corporate profits and helped support the stock market. The policy also encouraged Japanese banks to lend more money to businesses and households, which helped to stimulate the economy. Some businesses even took advantage of the low-interest rates to finance expansion and investments.

Another goal of this policy was to help raise inflation expectations in the country. When interest rates are negative, it becomes more expensive to hold cash, which can encourage spending and boost demand for goods and services. And thus lead to higher prices and inflation. By raising inflation expectations, the negative interest rate policy has helped support Japan’s economic growth.

However, the policy has not been without its challenges. One of the main challenges is that the policy could have been empirically more effective in boosting inflation. Despite the negative interest rates, Japan has faced deflationary pressures, with consumer prices remaining flat or even falling in some areas. This has led some economists to question the effectiveness of the policy and to call for alternative approaches.

To address these challenges, the BOJ introduced a new policy in September 2016 known as yield curve control. Under this policy, the BOJ targets a 10-year government bond yield of around 0%. This is intended to provide a stable and predictable interest rate environment that will support lending and economic growth. Additionally, the BOJ has continued to purchase large amounts of government bonds and other assets to inject liquidity into the economy.

Despite these measures, there are still concerns about the impact of negative interest rates on the Japanese economy. Some economists argue that negative interest rates could lead to financial instability, as investors may seek higher returns on riskier assets. Additionally, the policy has significantly impacted pension funds and other long-term savers who may need help to earn a decent return on their investments. According to a survey conducted by the Nomura Research Institute, 74% of Japanese households feel that negative interest rates have hurt their finances.

Furthermore, the policy has also had an impact on the banking sector. Japan’s banking sector is composed of three types of banks – city banks, regional banks, and trust banks. City banks are among Japan’s largest and most important banks, and they have been particularly affected by the negative interest rate policy. According to data from the BOJ, net interest income for city banks has fallen from JPY 8.6 trillion in 2015 to JPY 6.3 trillion in 2020. This has led some city banks to consider mergers and acquisitions to offset the policy’s negative impact. For example, in April 2020, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group announced that it would acquire Three Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group regional banks, merging them into a single entity to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Similarly, in 2018, Resona Holdings acquired The Kinki Osaka Bank; in 2020, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group acquired a stake in the Bank of Ayudhya in Thailand to diversify its revenue streams.

Regional banks have also been affected by the negative interest rate policy. These banks focus on lending to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in their local regions. However, with negative interest rates, they may struggle to make a profit on their loans, which could lead to a reduction in lending to SMEs. This could significantly impact the economy, as SMEs are a vital part of the Japanese economy, accounting for around 70% of employment and 50% of GDP.

On the other hand, trust banks have been less affected by the negative interest rate policy. These banks tend to focus on providing asset management and trust services rather than traditional banking activities. As such, they have been able to earn fees from their asset management activities, which have helped offset the policy’s negative impact.

In conclusion, Japan’s negative interest rate policy is a bold and unconventional monetary policy tool with benefits and challenges. While it has helped to stimulate the economy and support the stock market, it has also presented challenges for the banking sector and has yet to be as effective as hoped in boosting inflation. The BOJ has responded to these challenges by introducing new policies and continuing to inject liquidity into the economy. However, there are still concerns about the impact of negative interest rates on financial stability and long-term savers. As the BOJ continues to explore ways to support the Japanese economy, it will be interesting to see how this policy evolves and whether it will remain a central part of the BOJ’s monetary policy toolkit.

This week's thought was by Bai Xuantong

Xuantong is a first year economics student at Robinson College, Cambridge. He is interested in mathematical macroeconomics.

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