In “The Consequences of Imposing Negative Interest Rates“, Tenebrarum raises the specter of capital consumption. Of all the economic distortions caused by inflation, capital consumption may be the most serious in the long run. One problem is that it cannot be readily measured, so that if it does occur, it is likely to be well advanced by the time anyone notices.
However, there is one hope of avoiding such a calamity given the current mindset of the political class: technological advancement. Since it is unlikely that politicians will cut spending, reduce taxes, and order their monetary socialist central planning boards to refrain from money printing and suppressing interest rates, I believe that our only salvation is sufficiently high rates of economic growth via technological innovation that counterbalances the negative effects of inflationist policies. Indeed, it may very well be the case that this has already occurred at some point since the advent of worldwide fiat money 40 years ago.
‘Negative Interest Rates and Capital Consumption
Ever since the ECB has introduced negative interest rates on its deposit facility, people have been waiting for commercial banks to react. After all, they are effectively losing money as a result of this bizarre directive, on excess reserves the accumulation of which they can do very little about.
At first, only a small regional bank, Deutsche Skatbank, imposed a penalty rate on large depositors – slightly in excess of the 20 basis points banks must currently pay for ECB deposits. It turns out this was a Trojan horse. Other banks were presumably watching to see if depositors would flee Skatbank, and when that didn’t happen, Commerzbank decided to go down the same road.
However, there is an obvious flaw in taking such measures – at least is seems obvious to us. The Keynesian overlords at the central bank who came up with this idea have failed to consider a warning Ludwig von Mises once uttered about the attempt to abolish interest by decree.
Obviously, the natural interest rate can never become negative, as time preferences cannot possibly become negative: ceteris paribus, consumption in the present will always be preferred to consumption in the future. Mises notes that if the natural interest rate were to decline to zero, all consumption would stop – we would die of hunger while investing all of our resources in capital goods, i.e., while directing all of our efforts and funds toward production for future consumption. This is obviously a situation that would make no sense whatsoever – it is simply not possible for this to happen in the real world of human action.
Mises warns however that if interest payments are abolished by decree, or even a negative interest rate is imposed by decree, owners of capital will indeed begin to consume their capital – precisely because want satisfaction in the present will continue to be preferred to want satisfaction in the future regardless of the decree. This threatens to eventually impoverish society and reduce it to a state of penury:
If there were no originary interest, capital goods would not be devoted to immediate consumption and capital would not be consumed. On the contrary, under such an unthinkable and unimaginable state of affairs there would be no consumption at all, but only saving, accumulation of capital, and investment.
Not the impossible disappearance of originary interest, but the abolition of payment of interest to the owners of capital, would result in capital consumption.
The capitalists would consume their capital goods and their capital precisely because there is originary interest and present want-satisfaction is preferred to later satisfaction. Therefore there cannot be any question of abolishing interest by any institutions, laws, and devices of bank manipulation. He who wants to “abolish” interest will have to induce people to value an apple available in a hundred years no less than a present apple. What can be abolished by laws and decrees is merely the right of the capitalists to receive interest. But such laws would bring about capital consumption and would very soon throw mankind back into the original state of natural poverty.”
Of course today’s central bankers to a man seem to believe that what makes the economy grow is “spending” and consumption. This is putting the cart before the horse. Since the accumulation of capital threatens to go into reverse due to their policies, there may well come a time period during which reports of aggregate economic statistics appear to indicate that “economic growth has returned”, while all they reflect in reality is the fact that scarce capital is in the process of being consumed. This process is also known colloquially as “eating one’s seed corn”.‘
The rest of the article can be read here.