Washington Insider-- Wednesday

Another Look at Negative Rates

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

CFAP Payments Still Shy of $7 Billion

With the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) signup to run through August 28, payments at the national level moved up to $6.82 billion as of August 3 with 499,156 applications approved for the program.

One week ago, payouts totaled $6.55 billion.

Livestock payments still account for the largest share at $3.44 billion, with $1.79 billion for non-specialty crops, $1.31 billion for dairy and $269.6 million for specialty crops.

Payments for cattle still lead all commodities at $2.98 billion, followed by the $1.31 billion for milk and $1.22 billion for corn. Those are the only commodities where payouts have topped $1 billion, with the next largest payments for hogs at $430.2 million, soybeans at $344.5 million, and upland cotton at $172.3 million. Payments for the remainder of commodities covered under the program are no more than $56 million.

The top six states remain Iowa ($697.4 million), Nebraska ($499.2 million), Minnesota ($435.2 million), Wisconsin ($389.3 million), Texas ($480.5 million), and California ($365.2 million).

The program was originally expected to pay out some $16 billion to producers with an initial payment level at 80% of the estimated total payment. It is still not clear why the payouts have lagged the expected total since the program applications started coming in May 26.

Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Richard Fordyce told the Red River Farm Network that there could be a few reasons why signup is not higher, including the initial payments based on 80% of the estimated total payment. He also cited acreage reporting deadlines faced by farmers for their participation in farm programs as another potential factor.

“There's also a lot of acreage reporting taking place right now and once this has finished up, we anticipate the CFAP applications to ramp up a little bit,” he noted. He also observed that the agency is still mulling adding additional commodities to the program. As for the 20% additional payment, Fordyce said, “If it looks like we've got some space and we'll be able to issue that additional 20% of the eligible payment in CFAP, then we'll make that decision at a later time.”

USTR Nominee Moves Closer to Being in Place

The Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Michael Nemelka to be a deputy U.S. Trade Representative on a 24-to-4 vote Monday.

Nemelka was nominated to be deputy USTR for Africa, China and the Western Hemisphere and for investment, services, textiles, labor and environment. Nemelka has been a special advisor to USTR Robert Lighthizer for the past five months. He is expected to easily win confirmation in the full Senate.

Lawmakers focused on issues relative to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) during Nemelka's confirmation hearing as the agreement would fall under his purview.


Washington Insider: Another Look at Negative Rates

Bloomberg is reporting this week that “a basic truism of finance may be turned upside down.” The report argues that interest rates -- which normally reward savers and charge borrowers -- have been set below zero by central banks in a handful of big countries. “That means savings are losing value and borrowers can be paid to take out a loan.”

Considered one of the boldest monetary experiments of the 21st century, negative interest rates were adopted in Europe and Japan after policy makers realized that they needed extreme measures because their economies were still struggling years after the 2008 financial crisis. When the pandemic lockdowns halted commerce for months in 2020, central bankers looked for ways to cushion the blow. That rekindled a furious debate about whether rates in the red do more harm than good.

When the pandemic hit the U.S., the Federal Reserve quickly slashed its key interest rate back to near zero, where it had been for almost a decade after the financial crisis. President Donald Trump renewed his heckling of the Fed via Twitter, complaining that its reluctance to go negative put the U.S. at a disadvantage.

Chair Jerome Powell repeatedly dismissed the idea, saying the Fed was worried that the policy could roil U.S. money markets and preferred to use other tools. What's more, he said, research on the effectiveness of negative rates was “quite mixed.” Still, an undercurrent of worry led a market gauge reflecting traders' expectations of future Fed policy to fall briefly below zero in May 2020, with some investors betting the Fed would have to take the plunge within a year.

When the outbreak took hold, central banks that already had negative rates declined to lower them further, instead ramping up bond purchases and lending programs as the Fed has also done. The European Central Bank had cut its rate as recently as September 2019, charging banks 0.5% to hold their cash. But over the six years since ECB rates went negative, the policy has provoked increasing outcry that it has crippled banks and robbed savers. In Germany — a nation with a strong culture of socking money away — tabloid newspaper Bild railed against the central bank, casting former ECB President Mario Draghi as a savings-sucking vampire it dubbed “Count Draghila.”

The idea behind negative rates is simple, Bloomberg says. They drive borrowing costs lower and punish lenders that play it safe by hoarding cash. But economists frequently argue about whether they also have perverse effects that outweigh the textbook economic benefits. Chief among them is the impact on bank profits.

Since many banks are reluctant to start charging for deposits, the spread between the rate they pay for funds and what they can earn lending money can be squeezed. For example, over time, European banks began to levy fees.

Critics fret that the slide in borrowing costs will eventually hit a “reversal rate,” where the policy backfires as banks become less willing to lend. To offset that possibility, the ECB introduced a series of targeted measures to lift bank profits, including a “tiering” system that exempted a portion of the money parked at the ECB from charges.

There's also spillover in financial markets: Because central banks provide a benchmark for all borrowing costs across an economy, negative rates spread to a range of fixed-income securities, with government bonds of countries such as Germany and the UK trading at negative yields. That means investors lose money if they hold the debt to maturity.

Bloomberg concedes that central banks that use negative rates say they've lowered borrowing costs and fueled more lending. ECB research has shown that the downside has been manageable. Even central bankers worried about the potential harm say the scale of the crisis triggered by the pandemic and the limited number of tools available to fight it mean they can't rule anything out.

Fans include Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard, who argued in an article in May 2020 that objections are “either fuzzy-headed or easily addressed” and that only “effective deep negative interest rates can do the job” of reviving economies. Yet there are worries that negative rates will prove politically toxic, tainting the public view of central banks and threatening their hard-won independence.

To many critics, the policy had outlived its usefulness even before the pandemic and could now prove harder to escape. In 2019, Sweden, which began dipping below zero in 2009, became the first country to reverse course in a bid to ease the pain on lenders and investment funds. The Bank for International Settlements, a study group of central banks, warned in a 2019 briefing that there's “something vaguely troubling when the unthinkable becomes routine.”

The approach is still highly controversial, Bloomberg emphasizes. It highlights the extent to which global central bankers joined Powell's pushback on negative rates. This chorus of bankers has criticized negative rates and some central bankers say they may be doing more harm than good.

Nevertheless, Janet Yellen, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chair, said in 2015 that a change in circumstances could put negative rates “on the table” in the U.S.

So, we will see. Fiscal policy has become increasingly challenging as the pandemic has worsened. Clearly, this management tool is receiving greater attention than it did only months ago, and should be watched closely as the argument intensifies, Washington Insider believes.

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