Another day and another previously unthinkable development becomes reality in Europe. Yet what on the surface appears to be good news for Germany – the record low yield at its latest government debt auction – is actually an indication of growing stress elsewhere in the region.
At Monday’s regularly scheduled auction, the German government sold six-month securities at a negative yield of 0.012 per cent. Investors who bought them made history. Rather than receive interest income for lending money, they were the first to pay the German government for the privilege of converting their cash into securities that, at the margin, are less liquid and subject to mark-to-market volatility.
The outcome should not have come as a great surprise. Negative yields had already occurred in secondary market trading for short-dated German government securities. Moreover, a similar phenomena had taken place in the US at the height of the global financial crisis.
Some Germans may be tempted to welcome the cheap source of funding. But before celebrating too much, they would be well advised to consider both the causes and the implications.
Investors fleeing dislocated government debt markets elsewhere in Europe are attracted to Germany by its solid balance sheet and its fiscal discipline. Moreover, the fruits of years of structural reforms by Berlin are being harvested in the form of vibrant job creation and solid international competitiveness.
Part of this investor repositioning is funded by the sale of other European government debt. Another is being channelled through the banking system, with German banks gaining deposits at the expense of most other European banks.
Operational stress in Europe’s financial system is also a factor. Due to technical dislocations similar to what America experienced three years ago, some banks are forced to scramble in order to get their hands on high quality collateral, helping to push German yields to artificially low levels.
The longer these factors persist, the greater the likelihood that other private sector entities will also be pulled in the short-run into buying German securities. Over a longer time horizon, however, negative yields on the bills will reverse course, especially if conditions improve elsewhere in Europe. Yet, even then, there is a risk that a large portion of the new money pouring into German debt could prove more durable given that it is being hardcoded through investor- and depositor-driven changes to investment guidelines and benchmarks.
German rejoicing for borrowing money at negative rates should thus be tempered by the reality of Europe experiencing an accelerating disengagement of the private sector from the region’s economic integration project. This undermines growth and employment, shifts more of the load to taxpayers, and places even greater demands on creditor and debtor countries alike – all serving to aggravate an already strained process for agreeing on the appropriate policy response and related burden sharing.
At a time of considerable domestic resistance, governments in surplus countries (essentially Germany, but also others such as Finland and the Netherlands), as well as the European Central Bank, will face even greater external pressure to substitute more of their solid balance sheets for the delevering private sector. Meanwhile, debtor countries will be expected to do even more on the austerity front, thereby aggravating internal tensions and sacrificing both actual and potential growth.
Rather than welcome negative yields, Germany should interpret the outcome of Monday’s auction as further indication of the gravity of the situation facing the eurozone as a whole. It is another alarm bell calling for more forceful steps to improve the region’s policy mix, counter banking fragility, and strengthen the institutional underpinning of a "refounded” Europe.
The writer is the chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.