The rise and rise of negative interest-rates

by Shaun Richards

The modern era has brought something that has been in motion all my career, although there have been spells which did not feel like that. I am discussing bond yields which have been in a secular decline since the 1980s. Regular readers will be aware that back when I was new to this arena I asked Legal and General why they were buying a UK Gilt that yielded 15%? Younger readers please feel free to delete such a number from your memories if it is all too much. But there is another shift as back then the benchmark was 20 years and not 10. However you look at it from that perspective a world in which both the 2 and 5 year UK bond or Gilt yields were around -0.13% would have been considered impossible it not unpossible.

Germany

These have been the leaders of the pack in terms of negative bond yields. Last week Germany sold a benchmark 10 year bond with no coupon at all. We should take a moment to consider this as a bond is in theory something with a yield or coupon so as it does not have one we are merely left with money being borrowed and then repaid. Except there was a catch there too as not all of it will be repaid. The price paid was 105.13 on average and you will only get 100 back. Or if you prefer a negative yield of the order of 0.5% per year.

This year has brought something that in the past would have ended the situation as this.

The German Federal Government intends to issue fixed income Government securities with an aggregate volume of € 210 billion in 2020 to finance
the Federal Government budget and its special funds.

Became this.

The auction volume in the first two quarters of the current year amounted to € 97 billion for nominal capital market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 78 billion) and € 87.5 billion for money market instruments (planned at the beginning of the year: € 31 billion)…….Due to the adjustments, the third quarter auction volume for nominal capital market instruments will total € 74 billion (planned at the beginning of the year: € 41 billion).

As you can see there were considerably more bonds on offer but it has made little or no difference to investors willingness to accept a maturity loss or negative yield. Oh and maybe even more bonds are on the way.

In non-regular reopenings on 1 and 16 April, a total amount of € 142 billion of already existing Federal securities was issued directly into the Federal government’s own holdings. These transactions created the possibility to react flexibly to short-term liquidity requirements.

So we learn that the previous reality that Germany was benefiting from its austere approach to public finances was not much of an influence. Previously it has been running a fiscal surplus and repaying debt.

Switzerland

The benchmark yield is very similar here as the 10 year yield is -0.49%. There are many similarities in the situation between Germany and Switzerland but one crucial difference which is that Switzerland has its own currency. The Swiss Franc remains very strong in spite of an interest-rate of -0.75% that has begun to look ever more permanent which is an irony as the 1.20 exchange-rate barrier with the Euro was supposed to be that. The reality is that the exchange-rate over five years after the abandonment of that is stronger at just below 1.08.

So a factor in what we might call early mover status is a strong currency. This also includes the Euro to some extent as we note ECB President Lagarde was on the wires over the weekend.

ECB Lagarde Says Euro Gains Have Blunted Stimulus Boost to Inflation … BBG

This allows us to bring in Japan as well as the Yen has remained strong in spite of all the bond buying of the Bank of Japan.

Safe Haven

The ECB issued a working paper on this subject in January.

There is growing academic and policy interest in so called “safe assets”, that is assets that have stable nominal payoffs, are highly liquid and carry minimal credit risk.

Notice the two swerves which are the use of “stable nominal payoffs” and “minimal credit risk”. The latter is especially noticeable for a place like the ECB which insisted there was no credit risk for Greece, which was true for the ECB but not everyone else.

Anyway it continues.

After the global financial crisis, the demand for safe assets has increased well beyond its supply, leading to an increase in the convenience yield and therefore to the interest that these assets pay. High demand for safe assets has important macroeconomic consequences. The equilibrium safe real interest rate may in fact decline well below zero.

They also note a feature we have been looking at for the best part of a decade now.

In this situation, one of the adjustment mechanisms is the appreciation of the currency of issuance of the safe asset, the so called paradox of the reserve currency.

Quantitative Easing

The problem for the theory above is that the central banks who love to push such theories ( as it absolves them of blame) are of course chomping on safe assets like they are their favourite sweets. Indeed there is a new entrant only this morning, or more accurately an expansion from an existing player.

The Executive Board of the Riksbank has decided to initiate purchases of corporate bonds in the week beginning 14 September 2020. The purchases will keep
companies’ funding costs down and reinforce the Riksbank’s capacity to act if the credit supply to companies were to deteriorate further as a result of the corona pandemic. On 30 June 2020, the Executive Board decided that, within its programme for bond purchases, the Riksbank would offer to purchase corporate bonds to a
nominal amount of SEK 10 billion between 1 September 2020 and 30 June 2021.

There are all sorts of issues with that but for today’s purpose it is simply that the push towards negative interest-rates will be added to. Or more specifically it will increasingly spread to higher risk assets. We can be sure however that should some of these implode it will be nobody’s fault as it could not possibly have been predicted.

Meanwhile ordinary purchases around the world continue including in my home country as the Bank of England buys another £1.45 billion of UK bonds or Gilts.

Comment

There are other factors in play. The first is that we need to try to look beyond the present situation as we note this from The Market Ear.

the feedback loop…”the more governments borrow, the less it seems to cost – giving rise to calls for still more borrowing and spending”. ( Citibank)

That misses out the scale of all the central bank buying which has been enormous and gets even larger if we factor in expected purchases. The US Federal Reserve is buying US $80 billion per month of US Treasuries but with its announcement of average inflation targeting seems likely to buy many more

Also the same Market Ear piece notes this.

The scalability of modern technology means that stimulus is going into asset price inflation, not CPI

Just no. What it means is that consumer inflation measures have been manipulated to avoid showing inflation in certain areas. Thus via Goodhart’s Law and/or the Lucas Critique we get economic policy based on boosting prices in these areas and claiming they are Wealth Effects when for many they are inflation.

We get another shift because if we introduce the issue of capital we see that up to know bond holders will not care much about negative yields as they have been having quite a party. Prices have soared beyond many’s wildest dreams. The rub as Shakespeare would put it is that going forwards we face existing high prices and low or negative yields. It used to be the job of central banks to take the punch bowl away when the party gets going but these days they pour more alcohol in the bowl.

Meanwhile from Friday.

UK SELLS 6-MONTH TREASURY BILL WITH NEGATIVE YIELD AT TENDER, FIRST TIME 6-MONTH BILL SOLD AT NEGATIVE YIELD ( @fiquant )

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