Treasury Bill Rates Go Negative; Loaning Money At A Guaranteed Loss

from the wow dept

It caught some attention yesterday when the rate on four-week US treasury bills went to zero yesterday, but an even more astounding data point occurred when the yield on three month US treasuries briefly went negative. Yes, this meant that companies were willing to lend the government money for three months, knowing they wouldn't make back all their money.

If you want to know just how bad things are out in the market right now, this means that companies feel more comfortable losing some money to the government than investing in anything.

As for the obvious question of why would anyone invest in a bond that's guaranteed not to earn them a return, it simply comes down to alternatives. In theory, you could keep all that money in cash, and not lose any of it -- but that's not practical. If you literally kept it in cash in a giant vault somewhere, you'd pay so much to protect it, effectively you'd be "losing" more of it anyway -- not to mention the very real risk that some of that cash would be stolen. But why not leave it in a bank? Well, again, this comes down to how much of the money in a bank account is actually federally insured to be there. Insurance only covers so much, and since there's a small, but very real, risk that certain banks might just up and disappear, many companies recognize that treasuries at a loss are the best investment. In other words, they feel that no matter what they do with their money, they're going to lose money. So the strategy of investing in a negative t-bill is to lose as little as possible.

Of course, some might point out that going negative doesn't really mean that much. After all, if the return on the t-bill was less than inflation you were losing money in real purchasing terms anyway already. However, from a psychological perspective, it's still rather stunning that on a purely nominal basis, the return is negative. As a basic indicator of just how scared companies are to invest money right now, it's pretty powerful.
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Filed Under: financial crisis, negative returns, treasury bills

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  1. identicon
    Mogilny, 10 Dec 2008 @ 2:37pm

    Oops. Adding T-bills to portfolios lower risks which makes them more attractive to buyers.

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