KORSCHENBROICH, Germany—Two years ago, the European Central Bank cut interest rates below zero to encourage people such as Heike Hofmann, who sells fruits and vegetables in this small city, to spend more.
Policy makers in Europe and Japan have turned to negative rates for the same reason—to stimulate their lackluster economies. Yet the results have left some economists scratching their heads. Instead of opening their wallets, many consumers and businesses are squirreling away more money.
When Ms. Hofmann heard the ECB was knocking rates below zero in June 2014, she considered it “madness” and promptly cut her spending, set aside more money and bought gold. “I now need to save more than before to have enough to retire,” says Ms. Hofmann, 54 years old.
Recent economic data show consumers are saving more in Germany and Japan, and in Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden, three non-eurozone countries with negative rates, savings are at their highest since 1995, the year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development started collecting data on those countries. Companies in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Japan also are holding on to more cash.
Economists point to a variety of other possible factors confounding central-bank policy: Low inflation has left consumers with more money to sock away; aging populations are naturally more inclined to save; central banks themselves may have failed to properly explain their actions.