A reader asked me to write about this. I think it’s an interesting topic, since traditional relationships appear to be be breaking down.
Let’s just focus on government debt, since other debt markets tend to key off what happens here.
At the end of the term of a loan, lenders expect the safe return of their principal plus compensation for having made it. In the case of all but gigantic mutual fund/ETF lenders, participants in government bonds also enjoy a highly liquid secondary market where they can sell their holdings.
The compensation a lender receives is normally broken out into: protection against inflation + a possible real return.
In the case of T-bills, that is, loans to the government lasting one year or less, the total return in normal times would be: protection against inflation + an annual real return of, say, 0.5%. In a world where inflation was at the Fed target of 2%, that would mean one-year T-bills would be sold at par and yield 2.5%.
In the case of a 10-year T-bond, the annual return would be inflation + a real return of around 3% per year, the latter as compensation for the lender tying up his money for ten years. In a normal world, that would be 2% + 3% = a 5% annual interest rate for a bond sold at par.
Compare those figures with today’s one-year T-bill yield of 0.6% and 1.62% for the ten-year and we can see we’re not in anything near normal times. We haven’t been for almost a decade.
How did this happen?
The highest-level economic objective of the government in Washington is to achieve maximum sustainable long-term economic growth for the country. Policymakers think that growth rate is about 2.0% real per annum. Assuming inflation at 2.0%, this would imply nominal growth at 4.0% yearly.
expanding too fast
In theory, if the economy is running at a nominal rate much faster than 4% for an extended period, companies will reach a point where they’re ramping up operations even when there are no more unemployed workers. So they’ll staff up by poaching workers from each other by offering higher wages. But since there are no net new workers, all that will happen is that wages–and selling prices–will go up a lot. They’re be no greater amount of output, only an acceleration in inflation. This last happened in the US in the late 1970s.
Before things get to this state, the Federal government will act–either by lowering spending, raising taxes or raising interest rates–to slow the economy back down to the 2% real growth level. Typically, the economy ends up contracting mildly while this is going on.
Given long-standing dysfunction in Congress, the first two of these remedies are long since off the table. This leaves money policy–raising interest rates–as the only weapon in the government arsenal.
growing too slowly/external shock
If the economy slows too much or if it suffers a sharp out-of-the-blue economic shock, the possible government remedies are: lower taxes, increase spending, reduce interest rates. Washington has elected to do neither of the first two in response to the financial collapse in 2008-09, leaving monetary policy to do all the work of helping the country recover.
Fed policy in cases like this is to reduce the cost of debt to below the rate of inflation. That hurts lenders (the wealthy, pension funds, retirees) severely, since they are no longer able to earn a real return or even preserve the purchasing power of their money through buyng government securities.
On the other hand, this is like Christmas come early for borrowers. In theory, they now have many more viable projects they can launch. They’ll not only be making money on the merits of their new products/services; inflation will also be eroding the real value of the loans they will eventually have to pay back.
More on Monday.