Gold News

Goodbye Negative Yield

Well, not after inflation though...

NATURE is healing, writes John Stepek at MoneyWeek magazine.

Government bond yields are turning positive again.

But can the financial markets cope?

Years of emergency monetary policy – of interest rates near zero and rampant money printing by central banks – have created plenty of notable distortions in the markets.

Perhaps the plain weirdest of these distortions was the phenomenon of the negative bond yield.

The good news is that this aberration is now dwindling away. Nature, as they say, is healing.

The big question now is – can markets cope?

Bonds are a type of IOU. If you lend me money, you'd expect something in return for that – that something would be interest.

The exact amount of interest you want would be based on several factors, but the main ones include: a) how long I borrowed the money for; b) how much you think you can trust me to pay it back; c) the sorts of rates you could get by lending to other people or sticking your money in the bank.

What you probably wouldn't see as a good – or even valid – deal, is you lending me £100, on the condition that I paid you back £99 at the end of the term.

And yet, that's the deal that many investors have accepted to with investment-grade bonds (mostly, but not entirely, government bonds) over the last five years or more.

Negative-yielding bonds started to become a major phenomenon in around 2014, then spiked (with the Brexit vote, and related – if confused – concerns over the Eurozone) in 2016.

Everything started to calm down, particularly as the Federal Reserve, America's central bank, started raising interest rates in 2018. But then China's growth scare kicked in, the Fed reversed course and the volume of negative-yielding debt hit a new high in late 2019. Then Covid came along and we got another fresh record high of more than $17 trillion in negative-yielding debt worldwide in late 2020.

But now we're back to that 2018 low, at around $7.7trn and falling. The most eye-catching evidence is from the German Bund market.

As recently as late January, if you'd decided you fancied lending money to the German government over ten years, you'd have had to pay them for the privilege.

Yet today, you'll get paid more than 0.15% a year. A princely deal, I'm sure you'll agree. But in other words, the German government is finally having to pay to borrow money again.

What's changed? There are the obvious pointers.

Inflation is rocketing across the globe; no one is terribly happy because living costs are surging, and you can certainly debate what happens next, but at the same time, unemployment is low and most economies are seeing strong growth.

So even those investors who are most fearful of deflationary collapse are perhaps revising their views.

But of course, there's a much more obvious driver of negative interest rates which has gone away. It's the same thing that drove the spikes in 2016 and the slide in 2018.

When central banks are printing money to buy government debt, it's a no-lose proposition. You can buy a load, and then flip it to the central bank, and make a guaranteed profit. In other words, you aren't hanging around to actually pay the negative rate.

This is ending. Last week the Bank of England both raised interest rates and stopped its money-printing programme. The Bank's tone surprised some people (not to mention governor Andrew Bailey's somewhat baffling plea that people should avoid asking for pay rises, even as he was outlining just how bad the cost-of-living squeeze is about to get. If anything points to a wage-price spiral happening, it's this sense of official panic).

However, even more surprising for markets was the European Central Bank's change of tone.

The ECB didn't actually change interest rates or its money-printing programme, but in the press conference afterwards, Christine Lagarde, the ECB president, made it very clear that the bank is no longer erring on the side of economic caution. In fact, it's now worried about inflation.

Long story short, before Lagarde spoke, markets had been betting that the ECB would not move interest rates at all (or only once) this year. After she sat down, that expectation had shifted to four interest-rate rises. That's a big change.

Have inflation prospects changed so much in such a short period of time? Of course not. But now that the Fed is being more punchy on inflation, and now that it's a headline-grabbing issue, the other central banks can't ignore it.

The idea that they can do anything about soaring energy prices is facile, but to admit this would be to admit that, in fact, central banks don't really have the sort of control over what's laughably described as the economic "machine" that they've been credited with over the last couple of decades or more.

Why does all of this matter to you as an investor? Well, on the one hand, higher interest rates – assuming they don't create a recession – should be good news for banking stocks and their profit margins. So that's your share tip side of things taken care of.

On the other hand, it does raise the question of what happens as all of these countries start finding their interest bills going up. For example, the Eurozone crisis feels way back in the mists of time now, but we shouldn't forget that one key function of ECB money printing has been to keep interest costs down for "periphery" Eurozone countries.

I don't think we'll see a 2010-style crisis there again. But at some point, investors might start getting edgy about lending to the likes of Italy. It's probably worth keeping an eye on the spread (the gap) between the yield on German bunds and that on other Eurozone nations' debt.

When push comes to shove, there's a good chance that central banks are at some point going to have to choose between pretending to tackle inflation and keeping a lid on unsustainable borrowing costs.

That'll be something to watch.

Launched alongside the UK's highly popular The Week digest of global and national news in 2001, MoneyWeek magazine mixes a concise reading of the latest financial events with expert comment and investment ideas.

Please Note: All articles published here are to inform your thinking, not lead it. Only you can decide the best place for your money, and any decision you make will put your money at risk. Information or data included here may have already been overtaken by events – and must be verified elsewhere – should you choose to act on it. Please review our Terms & Conditions for accessing Gold News.

Follow Us

Facebook Youtube Twitter LinkedIn



Market Fundamentals