If you believe that government meddling in financial markets was responsible for the last recession and the lackluster recovery, you might be right. But probably not in the way you think.
Imagine what would happen in a free market if everyone suddenly decided that future economic growth would be very slow. The price of safe assets such as U.S. government bonds — assets that pay off even in a low-growth environment — would rise sharply. As a result, the real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate, which always moves opposite to the price of safe assets, would fall. In principle, if the demand for safe assets was strong enough, the real interest rate could go deep into negative territory.
Yet two government mechanisms prevent real interest rates from getting too negative. The first is cash: As long as people can hold currency, which loses its value only at the rate of inflation, they won’t buy safe assets that yield even less. The second is the central bank’s promise to keep the inflation rate low and stable — at about 2 percent in most developed nations. As a result, people have little reason to hold any asset that yields less than negative 2 percent (perhaps negative 3 percent, considering that cash is bulky and hard to store).
In other words, governments — by issuing cash and managing inflation — put a floor on how low interest rates can go and how high asset prices can rise. That’s hardly a free market.
Like any government interference, this causes inefficiencies. By preventing the future prices of goods and services from rising too far above the current prices, it constrains demand for current goods and services. The weak demand, in turn, leads companies to hire less and invest less in the development of new technologies, leaving the work force underutilized and productivity low. Sound familiar?
What’s the fix for this problem? John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, has offered some ideas, such as increasing inflation targets — but these are partial work-arounds at best.
The right answer is to abolish currency and move completely to electronic cash, an idea suggested at various times by Marvin Goodfriend of Carnegie-Mellon University, Miles Kimball of the University of Colorado and Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England. Because electronic cash can have any yield, interest rates would be able go as far into negative territory as the market required.
Some groups of people, particularly retirees and soon-to-be-retirees, might react with horror to such an idea. That’s to be expected. After all, consumers in poorer countries respond similarly to removing distortionary price ceilings from bread and milk. That doesn’t make price controls desirable. If a government wants to redistribute resources to the elderly or the poor, it’s much better off just giving them money.