Is Cash Dead?

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trashJPMorgan Chase recently sent a letter to some of its large depositors telling them it didn?t want their stinking money anymore. Well, not in those words. The bank coined a euphemism: Beginning on May 1, it said, it will charge certain customers a ?balance sheet utilization fee? of 1 percent a year on deposits in excess of the money they need for their operations. That amounts to a negative interest rate on deposits. The targeted customers?mostly other financial institutions?are already snatching their money out of the bank. Which is exactly what Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon wants. The goal is to shed $100 billion in deposits, and he?s about 20 percent of the way there so far.

Pause for a second and marvel at how strange this is. Banks have always paid interest to depositors. We?ve entered a new era of surplus in which banks?some, anyway?are deigning to accept money only if customers are willing to pay for the privilege. Nick Bunker, a policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, was so dazzled by interest rates? falling into negative territory that he headlined his analysis after a Doors song, Break on Through (to the Other Side).

In recent months, negative rates have become widespread in Europe?s financial capitals. The European Central Bank, struggling to ignite growth, has a deposit rate of ?0.2 percent. The Swiss National Bank, which worries that a rise of the Swiss franc will hurt trade, has a deposit rate of ?0.75 percent. On April 21 the cost for banks to borrow from each other in euros (the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor) tipped negative for the first time. And as of April 17, bonds comprising 31 percent of the value of the Bloomberg Eurozone Sovereign Bond Index??1.8 trillion ($1.93 trillion) worth?were trading with negative yields. (Although dollar interest rates are higher, JPMorgan Chase?s balance sheet utilization fee fits the pattern: In today?s low-rate world, the only way it can shed deposits in response to new regulations is to go all the way to less than zero.)

It?s not unusual for interest rates to be negative in the sense of being lower than the rate of inflation. If the Federal Reserve pushes interest rates below inflation to stimulate growth, it becomes cheaper to borrow and buy something now than to wait to make the purchase. If you wait, inflation could make prices go up by more than what you owe on the loan. You can also think of it as inflation reducing the effective amount you owe.

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