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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.