A few high points:
1. Needed: anonymous electronic transactions.
Many (not all) negative interest rate proposals call for the elimination of currency. Currency is dying anyway due to the great advantages of electronic transactions. I bemoaned the loss of privacy and political freedom when the NSA, the IRS, and pretty soon Twitter and the Chinese Department of Hacking have a record of everything you've ever bought or sold. Jamie brings up another important point:
The anonymity afforded by currency transactions prevents a buyer from suffering from any actions taken after the transactions that could exploit the knowledge gained by the seller of the buyer’s identity. For example, identity theft, or theft of credit or debit card information, is avoided through the use of currency. This is an economic benefit that is distinct from valuing privacy from a civil liberties point of view. If currency cannot be used in transactions, buyers are at a disadvantage, and many otherwise beneficial transactions (not related to buyers seeking to engage in tax evasion or otherwise illicit activity) would not take place.Anonymity has value in many transactions. Anonymity equals finality.
It's not hard to have anonymous electronic transactions. Stored value cards could work well as electronic cash. If regulators allowed it, it would be simple enough to set up a money market fund that allows anonymous investing. Regulators don't allow it.
2. Hysterisis of institutions and the lesson of the 70s
There are fixed costs in setting up many institutions that adapt to negative nominal rates. For example, the option to hold currency:
.. Often, the costs of holding currency securely, by having a safety deposit box or a vault, are fixed costs. Once one has a vault, or has rented a safety deposit box, the costs of storing additional currency in it, up to its capacity, is nil. This suggests that there is a dynamic element to the economics of avoiding negative interest rates: the longer the negative rates are expected to persist, and the lower they are, the more favorable are the returns to investing in a vault. Once the vault investment has been made, maintaining negative rates would likely become more difficult.Jamie adds to the clever ways to synthesize zero rate investments, and a cost I hadn't thought of
An even more far-reaching change that many have suggested would be the creation of a new institution to handle and store currency on behalf of others; this could dramatically reduce the costs of holding currency...
For example, suppose that one holds a credit card under existing U.S. rules: one can withdraw funds from an account that is earning a negative rate, and pay one’s debt to the credit card company in advance of when it is due, earning a zero return during the prepayment period....We went through this once before. In the 1970s, pricing and financial institutions were set up with small positive interest rates in mind. It took a period of prolonged inflation to induce people to spend all the fixed costs to adapt to high interest rates, including widespread indexation, money market funds, interest-paying checking accounts, and so forth. In turn, the easing of these "frictions," quickly removed the hoped-for benefits of inflation. For example, prices and wages were sticky when there was less inflation. Turn on inflation, and once people put the effort in to index contracts, price and wage stickiness fade, and inflation has much less output and employment effect.
... if one were to receive a check from the U.S. government for a tax refund, one could simply put it in a safe place and earn zero interest on it during the time the check remained undeposited...
...leaving the check undeposited, much like the hoarding of currency, is a negative outcome for society. ... This may impose unexpected costs on the check writer, triggering unplanned overdrafts and associated charges...
...having talented individuals looking for these opportunities is a dead-weight loss to society. We would rather have them use their talents for more socially productive purposes.
So, the same sorts of legal and financial investments that allowed an economy to adapt to high nominal interest rates can also allow it to adapt to negative interest rates -- at large cost, in time and effort, in rewriting contracts, and in foregoing many advantages of currency. But are we sure the benefits will not disappear at the same time?
3. Financial institutions and negative rates
The health of banks and many other financial institutions depends on earning a spread between what the institutions earn on their assets and what they pay on their liabilities. Negative rates can squeeze bank profits.and a lot of non-banks too. There is a plausible channel here that negative nominal rates hurt a large swath of financial institutions -- at least until they rewrite all their contracts and persuade all their clients to accept negative rates. This is a channel by which lowering rates could hurt economic activity.
By the way, I learned that those negative rates aren't so negative,
..the central banks that have negative policy rates offer zero rates on many of their deposits from banks, imposing negative rates on the “marginal” deposits. In this way, commercial banks can, in general, charge their retail depositors deposit rates of zero and earn zero at the central bank on at least a large portion of their reserve holdings.4. Speaking of cause and effect signs...
..people could infer [from a negative interest rate] that the central bank itself has low expectations for inflation and is lowering nominal rates into negative territory as a way to “ratify” the low expected inflation environment. Such an inference would complicate the central bank’s effort to achieve its objective because it could encourage and entrench the public’s expectations for deflation. That could complicate the potential exit from the negative rate regimeMaybe with abundant excess reserves, the Fisher equation is stable -- and that lowering nominal rates will cause inflation to decline. Jamie isn't quite ready to burn at the heretic's stake on this issue, but you can see him edging closer to the fire.