Switzerland and Denmark go negative

Negative nominal interest rates arrive.

Government interest rates have, in real terms, been negative for quite some time. Britain, the US, and Germany are all in the position where they are being paid to borrow money. This creates some rather interesting incentives for governments: they can fund massive investment programs at minuscule expense, they can use money which would be spent on interest payments on more valuable projects, or they could even just stop collecting taxes entirely.

Unfortunately, political considerations have meant that most governments have been unwilling to show even the slightest innovation when responding to a situation in which the most basic rules of the game no longer hold. And, when negative interest rates came to business, the same thing happened.

Unilever and Texas Instruments are also borrowing below the rate of inflation, but when presented with free money, businesses – even ones like Google, supposedly staffed with the world's greatest blue-sky thinkers – don't do anything other than sit on monstrous cash piles waiting for a more favourable investment environment.

Now the trend has spread in a different direction. Two banks – State Street Corp. and Bank of New York Mellon – have announced that customers holding accounts in Swiss Francs or Danish Crone will be subject to a negative interest rate. That's negative in nominal terms, so in real terms it's an even sharper penalisation of savers.

These two currencies are experiencing some of the tightest squeezes because they are both pegged closely to the euro (Denmark is in ERM II and Switzerland has enacted a ceiling on how much it can appreciate relative to the currency), while also being in strong demand because they are not actually the euro – making them the star choice for investors who want to hold european assets without taking the risk that the eurozone will messily implode.

Conventional wisdom says that nominal negative interest rates can't happen. Savers will merely withdraw their money and keep it in cash to avoid the "fee". This doesn't seem to be happening, probably because the value of having a bank account in another countries currency is high enough that it's worth paying for the benefit. Conventional wisdom, yet again, is apparently wrong.

The Matterhorn, Swiss icon. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.