On July 18th, 2012, the German government sold US$5.13 billion worth of 2-year bonds at an average yield of -0.06%. Please note the negative symbol in front of that yield number. What this means is that the German government was able to borrow money for less than nothing. When those specific bonds expire in two years’ time, the German government will pay back the original $5.13 billion minus 0.06%. Expressed another way, investors knowingly and willingly bid the German government $5.13 billion in exchange for bonds that will pay no interest and are guaranteed to lose them money on expiration. Welcome to the new status quo.
Germany is not alone. Over the past six months, the countries of Netherlands, Switzerland and France have also issued short-term government debt at negative yields. Like Germany, they’ve been able to do this because European bond investors are so shell shocked that they’d rather park money in a bond that’s guaranteed to only lose a miniscule amount rather than risk losing more in a PIIGS bond that actually pays some interest. In addition, many investors view German, French and Dutch bonds to be cheap options on the break-up of the Eurozone. If the EU currency union collapses, euro-denominated bonds issued by those specific countries may be paid back in re-issued deutschmarks, francs or guilders, which will be far more valuable than the euros that were spent to buy the bonds in the first place… or at least that’s the idea. As a result of this thinking, the bond market auctions for these select countries have seen overwhelming demand, making NIRP (Negative Interest Rate Policy) the new ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy).
The NIRP acronym is misleading, however, because unlike ZIRP, NIRP isn’t actually an official “policy” per se, but rather a symptom of a broken financial system increasingly starved for good ‘collateral’. Aside from those speculating on a Eurozone currency collapse, a large portion of the bond investors participating in NIRP bond auctions are the banks. As the euro crisis has dragged on, banks in perceived “strong” countries like Germany and Switzerland have seen record inflows of deposits from banks in peripheral EU countries, like Spain. As most of these “strong country” banks have been hesitant to lend those deposits out (for obvious reasons), they are forced to park them in short-term government bonds. Moreover, new rules imposed by various regulators such as Basel III have forced all banks to hold a larger percentage of their balance sheet in government bonds, regardless of their country of domicile. The result has been a mad dash into the bond auctions of select “safe” countries just as the pool of available AAA-bonds has been drastically reduced. Banks are piling into NIRP bond auctions today because they have nowhere else to go. This is why nobody seems to be alarmed by the recent ubiquity of NIRP bond auctions – they are merely thought to be a short term phenomenon that will pass in time… just like zero-percent interest rates were supposed to be when they were widely introduced four years ago.