Understanding Deflation: Bonds Paying 0%

There wsa a good article in today’s WSJ (requires subscription) describing the unique point we hit today in the bond market.  Some durations of US Treasury bonds are now actually paying negative interest, -0.01% in some cases.

Investors around the world are stuffing their money into a mattress — otherwise known as the U.S. Treasury-bond market.

Fund managers, corporate treasurers, hedge funds, banks and central banks want to show their constituents, or bosses, their portfolios are bulletproof as year end approaches. Even with all the government’s steps to shore up the credit markets, investors aren’t taking any risks. Instead, they are willing to pay a premium, rather than collect one, to ensure they have in 2009 what they have now.

That means that someone is paying $100.00 for the priviledge of  getting back $99.99 at the end of the term.

This may sound ridiculous, unless you think of it in plain English:

“I’m willing to pay the US Government one penny to keep my $100.00 safe and sound for this duration.”

In a world of fear and deflation, this statement starts to make sense.  Hell, you might even pay more than $0.01 for that security in some cases.

Deflation is a very weird financial state.  For most people, it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s a world where cash today is worth less than cash tomorrow.  It’s a world where commodities (like gold, silver, oil, food) get cheaper over time nominally, not more expensive.  It’s a world where you don’t buy today, because tomorrow the same product will be cheaper.

In fact, the only large segment of the population at this point who likely have an instinctive feel for deflation are people tied to high technology, primarily hardware like hard drives and semiconductors.  They’ve spent 30 years dealing with the fact that their products will be cheaper tomorrow than today.  They’ve even created high return businesses in effectively a deflationary environment.

I’m not going to go into detail about all aspects of deflation in this post.  But I did think it was worth explaining why 0% bonds might make sense.

Think about the dangers for keeping cash:

  • Someone could steal it.  So you have to secure it.
  • It can get physically destroyed (fire, pets, small children)
  • You can invest it, but those investments may lose money (stocks, bonds, commodities, you-name-it)
  • You can put it in a bank, but they may go bankrupt.  (you are protected up to $250K, but you may not get it immediately)

When people are afraid, and liquidity is rushing out of the system, 0% guaranteed by the ultimate “too big to fail” institution in the world can sound pretty good.

Now, I doubt this makes sense for individuals with dollars measured in thousands.  With those numbers, you can get 3+% on a CD, guaranteed by the FDIC.  But for institutions with millions or billions, how do you protect your cash?  Seriously.  It’s not a trivial problem when you think about it.

And no, you can’t just “go to gold”.  Even gold drops in nominal value during deflation.

Mathematically, if a country is undergoing 5% deflation per year, that means that $1000 of gold will only cost $950 in a year.   From that point of view, 0% percent interest + 5% deflation = a 5% real return on your capital, adjusted for inflation.

Yes, it seems like a monetary phenomenon from Bizzaro’s home planet, a square world where people say “goodbye” when they come and “hello” when they go.

But that’s what we’re flirting with right now, as it seems like literally $20 Trillion in nominal value may have disappeared off the planet.

The silver lining, however, is that you can make money in a deflationary market, if you re-orient your thinking.  Sell your products quickly, for cash.  Money now is worth more than money later.  Prioritize products that buyers cannot postpone.  Inventory turnover is key.

Intel has made billions turning over products that drop in value 1% a week in some cases.  It can be done.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Deflation: Bonds Paying 0%

  1. Pingback: Refinancing? Try Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PFCU) « Psychohistory

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