The 5,000-Year Government Debt Bubble

James Freeman:

Politicians playing by their own rules is an old story. But it should count as news that politicians have lately been rewriting a rule in place since 3,000 B.C.

This rule of history is that savers deserve to be compensated when they loan money. Not anymore. In much of the developed world lenders are the ones paying for the privilege of letting governments borrow their cash. Through the magic of modern central banking, countries in Europe and elsewhere have managed to drive their borrowing rates not just to historic lows but all the way into negative territory. As of Monday almost $16 trillion of government bonds world-wide were offering yields below zero.

Amazingly, governments have managed this feat even as they have become more indebted and even as slow economic growth undermines their ability to repay. Such conditions normally suggest a less creditworthy borrower and therefore a higher interest rate to compensate investors for the risk. But sovereign debt has become more expensive. Governments have succeeded in making their bonds more expensive in part by printing money and buying the bonds themselves via their central banks. Commercial banks are all but required to buy them too.