After going more than a decade without a single interest rate cut, recently the Federal Reserve shifted gears and has lowered interest rates twice since July. The Fed's change of heart comes as the global economy is looking weaker, and many experts are forecasting a recession for the relatively near future.
The Fed hopes that lowering interest rates will help keep the economy growing in the short term, and perhaps in the long term as well, but there's only so low that rates can go — unless they go negative, which has never happened in the United States. Negative interest rates would upend the traditional financial system in that savers would effectively pay banks to store their money while borrowers could be paid to take out loans.
Some U.S. politicians, including President Trump, have called for them to be implemented, which puts pressure on the Fed. Currently, the U.S. central bank has set the benchmark interest rate at a range of 1.75%-2%. That's down half a percent from earlier this year, as the Fed has cut rates by 25 basis points twice since July.
For rates to go negative, they'd need to drop by more than 2%.
Interest rates dictate how much you must pay to borrow money, whether from a credit card company or a mortgage provider. They also determine how much a bank pays you to store your money with them in a savings account.
That number is, and almost always has been, positive or neutral. That means you pay interest on your credit card balance so that the issuer makes money, and your bank pays you to maintain a savings account, rather than you paying them.
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Negative interest rates would flip the script. In theory, if the rate of interest went negative, you'd pay your bank to keep your money, and a credit card company would pay you to spend.
And that's the idea: Experts often turn to low interest rates to stimulate economic growth by prompting consumers to spend money rather than stash it away. Spending and consumption is the product of demand, and demand for goods and services creates jobs. So enticing Americans to spend more would keep the economy growing.
Experts aren't exactly sure what the effects would be if the Fed cut rates below zero, as it's never happened before in the U.S. They can make some educated guesses, though.
For savers, a rate drop leading to negative rates could be disastrous for your own personal finances. You'd be losing money by stashing it in a savings account and would likely be better off hoarding cash under your floorboards.
"Cutting interest rates to zero would throw savers under the bus," Greg McBride, the chief financial analyst at Bankrate, recently told CNBC. "Zero percent interest rates are not a panacea," he added, explaining that sub-zero rates likely wouldn't have the desired effect of getting people to spend.
It would also set you back when it comes to your ability to earn interest as you save and invest for a comfortable retirement, says Robin Anderson, a senior global economist at Principal. "The challenge of negative interest rates is that you may actually have to save more because you might see negative yields on some of your investments," she says. "You'd have to save more to achieve the same retirement goals."
Experts say it's unlikely, though, that any lenders would actually pay consumers to take on debt. Instead, they'd find other ways to make money. "I ultimately think that consumers will pay more in the form of higher fees," Anderson says.
It may take some time before you notice lower interest rates filter down to your savings accounts or lines of credit. Once the lower rates kick in, though, here are some smart money moves experts suggest you consider making.
Check in on your savings and investments. Lower rates typically mean that any savings you have in the bank will earn less in interest, so it may make sense to shop around for higher rates on savings accounts. Or you could invest some money in a CD, which makes funds unavailable for a predetermined amount of time, often about two years, and in exchange generally offers a higher interest rate.
You may want to consider rebalancing your portfolio, too. The sectors that tend to benefit from lower interest rates will likely surge, Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA Research in New York, told Grow. "Utilities, real estate, consumer staples have done well" in low-rate environments, he said.
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Look at refinancing options. If you've been holding off on refinancing your mortgage or other loans, now may be the time to act.
"Lower rates provide an opportunity for lower-cost borrowing, including for mortgages, which support refinancing and prospective homebuyers," says Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate. Look at your available refinancing options, experts suggest: You could end up lowering your monthly payments and cut back on the amount you'll spend on interest over the life of your loan.
Consider making a big purchase. Lower rates may bring down the cost of a significant purchase, like a home, a pricey home appliance, or a car. With the average car payment near an all-time high, locking in financing with a lower rate is likely to save you money. The same goes for mortgages.
Several countries currently have negative interest rates, like Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. But Fed chairman Jerome Powell has repeatedly said that he wants to avoid sub-zero rates. "I do not think we'd be looking at using negative rates," Powell told reporters following a recent Fed meeting.
He has good cause for concern. Research shows that negative rates in Europe and Japan may be backfiring, hurting bank profits and affecting banks' ability to offer loans.
The likelihood of the U.S. implementing negative rates depends on what the economy does. As of August, data showed that 74% of economists predicted the U.S. would experience a recession by 2021. If the country is going to see negative rates, it would likely be within the next couple of years as the Fed works to keep the economy healthy.
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Despite Powell's resistance, some CEOs and economists are either saying it's possible the United States will see negative rates or preparing for them by cutting costs and looking at potential fee increases.
For consumers, the best preparation is to stick to basic, healthy financial habits. Namely, build your savings, be mindful when spending, and keep your long-term goals in mind. Negative rates may or may not become a reality, and you shouldn't start making bad decisions while getting your hopes up that your credit card issuer will bail you out. It's unlikely that U.S. shoppers would ever get paid to borrow money.
"For consumers, let's get one thing straight about negative interest rates — no one is going to pay you to take out a loan," McBride told NBC News.
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