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Denmark’s Negative Interest Rates

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Denmarkby Matthew Campbell, Bloomberg

In Copenhagen, bicycles take undisputed priority over cars and even pedestrians. A sizzling restaurant scene has made foodie fetishes of moss, live ants and sea cucumbers. Despite a minimum wage not far below $20 an hour and some of the world’s steepest taxes, unemployment is almost the lowest in Europe. Parents happily leave infants unattended in strollers on the sidewalk while they stop in to cafes.

Clearly the usual rules tend not to apply in Denmark. So it’s no surprise that the country in recent years has added a major new entry to its sprawling repertoire of eccentricities: Since 2012 it’s been a place where you can get paid to borrow money and charged to save it.

Scandinavia’s third-largest economy (the population is 5 million, and there are about as many bikes) is deep into an unprecedented experiment with negative interest rates, a monetary policy tool once viewed by mainstream economists as approaching apostasy, if not a virtual impossibility. Companies — though not yet individuals — are paying lenders for the privilege of keeping funds on deposit; homeowners, in some cases, are actually making money on mortgages.

Most private-sector forecasters don’t expect Denmark’s central bank to go positive again until 2018 at the earliest, making the country a long-term petri dish for what happens when the laws of financial gravity are inverted. Although some dovish economists have advocated negative rates as a salve for deflation and anemic growth, if Econ 101 is to be believed they should have stomach-churning consequences: asset bubbles, capital flight, and the frenetic manufacture of very heavy vaults to hold money pulled from banks.

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© 2016 Bloomberg L.P.

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