For years I have argued that ultra-low interest rates act more as an economic sedative than a stimulant. This idea has elicited laughter from the economic establishment. But it is becoming clearer that rates set by central banks that are far below the levels that free markets would have otherwise determined have dragged the world into the economic mud. The simple proof is currently arising in Europe where negative interest rates are now transforming companies from agents of growth, production, and employment into financial sloths that exist solely to borrow money. In a September 7 front page article, the Wall Street Journal reported that as of September 5, 706 billion worth of investment-grade European corporate debt, or roughly 30% of the market, according to trading platform Tradeweb, was trading at negative yields, an increase from just 5% in January. These negative yields were the result of intense activism on the part of the European Central Bank (ECB). For years the ECB had been trying to stimulate growth by buying trillions of euros’ worth of sovereign debt. But as these programs proved ineffective to wake up the EU economy from its long economic slumber, this year they began moving into the corporate market. Most of this buying has occurred on the secondary market, for bonds that had previously been issued at positive rates. The central bank buying raised prices of these bonds sufficiently to push yields into negative territory. It also has drawn in speculators who have bought low yielding bonds not because they are good investments but because they are convinced that the ECB will one day buy them out at a premium.
This post was published at Euro Pac on Friday, September 9, 2016.