Monday, April 13, 2015

How does Government Debt go negative?

Today came the news that short-term German government paper was following the Swiss example and turning negative, not only that but its expected that it won't be very long until the 10-year Bund follows suit.

Quizzical isn't it? Why would anyone pay for the privilege of lending someone money?

Friends and colleagues of mine, having a hunch that I know a little more about finance than they do have been asking me about this quite a bit recently and to be honest I have struggled to give them an answer they could happily digest. Well it certainly is a "new normal" and set to spread throughout the developed world as things get worse but how and why is it happening?

In short this is what Quantitative Easing has wrought. Institutions paying for the privilege of lending their money to insolvent governments. Not because those borrowers are such low risk counterparties, but rather because now real investors must compete with totally price-insensitive Central Banks hoovering up sovereign debt with freshly 'Printed' money.

If you want to understand this mechanism in a little more detail here is an excellent blog post by David Stockman who is examining a fascinating new blog by none other than the architect of this mess, Ben Shalom Bernanke.

This is the crux of his conceit:
A similarly confused criticism often heard is that the Fed is somehow distorting financial markets and investment decisions by keeping interest rates “artificially low.” Contrary to what sometimes seems to be alleged, the Fed cannot somehow withdraw and leave interest rates to be determined by “the markets.” The Fed’s actions determine the money supply and thus short-term interest rates; it has no choice but to set the short-term interest rate somewhere.
He doesn't even know what this mythical rate should be, but whatever figure he comes up with I'm sure it will be agreeable to the bankrupt sovereign states of the West.


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