Interest rates – accentuating the negative

So it’s just a normal day. You walk into the bank, deposit some money. And the teller asks you to pay them interest. Keeping your cool, you ask why. And the teller apologetically explains: “Oh we’ve got negative interest rates.”

Right now, we’re living in a world where some countries have ‘negative interest rates.’ That means, that instead of rewarding customers for depositing money, a bank (or a central bank) will charge them interest. In financial terms, that’s the world turned upside down.

So how did we get here?

The GFC hangover and COVID-19

Broadly speaking, negative interest rates are engineered by governments and central banks as a way of getting life into a chronically spluttering economy. If it costs you money to put your money in the banks (or it costs banks money to park their funds with the Government) there’s more incentive for individuals to spend it on housing, at the shops, or on holidays. And for banks to invest it in areas that also foster more economic activity and employment – like lending to business.

There’s no coincidence we’re talking about negative interest rates in 2021. They were part of a suite of measures used by some countries to try and get out of the economic slump caused by the Global Financial Crisis back in 2008/09. The economic shock administered by COVID-19 has brought them back into fashion – countries as advanced as Japan, Switzerland and Sweden have jumped on the negative interest rate train.1

Australia stays positive

So what do negative rates mean for you? The good news is that they’re not really happening in Australia. At least not yet. And they probably won’t.

Back in November 2020, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Governor Dr Philip Lowe said: “There has been no change to the Board's view that there is little to be gained from lowering the policy rate into negative territory.”2

Given that the Australian economy has picked up sharply since then – house prices and employment numbers are on the upswing – there seems less need for negative interest rates in Australia than most other countries.

Different folks

But, while not negative, interest rates in Australia are still at historic lows – and could stay that way till around 2024 according to Dr Lowe and his team at the RBA.3 This has implications for everyone – but different implications depending on whether you’re a saver or a borrower.

  • If you’re a saver or retired, low interest rates make it harder to earn the income you used to from products like Cash Management Trusts and Term Deposits. You might find you are considering investing in riskier assets, like shares, to try to make up that income.
  • If you have large debts – like a mortgage – your interest payments are likely significantly lower. And if you’re looking to borrow, it’s possible you can borrow more money, because your repayments will likely to be much lower.

What goes down must come up

As mentioned earlier, these low interest rates are a symptom of a global economy trying to get itself going again.  They’re not normal (though they might feel like the new normal). That means it could make sense to get good advice about how to handle this economic trend – to look out a bit longer than the next three years.

Here’s how good advice could help:

  • Savers: A financial planner can help you find sources of extra income without taking on too much risk to do it.
  • Borrowers: Some expert advice could help you ensure you don’t overcommit when it comes to borrowing. As the popular US financial planning radio star Dave Ramsey puts it, “A lower interest rate doesn’t make a debt go away.”4

Bottom line: look past today’s trend

Low and negative rates are likely to be with us for some time. But for Australian savers, borrowers and investors, it’s important to look beyond the obvious, front page economic headlines.

A good financial planner can ensure you aren’t carried away by the latest news and forget your long-term plans.

After all, the COVID crisis is just a year old – and already people are talking about a potential post-COVID boom. Things go down – and up again – and down again. Just like interest rates. 

1 What are negative interest rates? Szu Ping Chan, Business reporter, BBC News, 4 February 2021, What are negative interest rates? - BBC News, accessed 8 March 2021.

2 Today’s monetary policy decision. Speech by Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe, 3 November 2020.  https://www.rba.gov.au/speeches/2020/pdf/sp-gov-2020-11-03.pdf, accessed 8 March 2021.

3 Ibid.

4 101 Inspiring Dave Ramsey Quotes that Will Help You Learn How to Become A Millionaire. America Saves. Maryn Liles, 20 February 2021. https://parade.com/969637/marynliles/dave-ramsey-quotes/, accessed 8 March 2021

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