The Japanese and European Central Banks continue to buy their own government bonds on a grand scale. Their actions in creating money to boost the price of bonds is helping sustain ultra low interest rates throughout the advanced world. Bondholders have been rewarded with large increases in the capital value of their holdings.
It has proved easy for the authorities to create cash and boost bond prices. The US and UK started this process in the West. The ECB now has taken up the running. Japan has been doing it for years, as part of the long aftermath to her large banking and property crash 25 years ago.
The policy is meant to have several desirable affects. It does cut interest rates, helping drive down the costs of borrowing. It does persuade more people and institutions to undertake more risky investments, as those who sell their bonds look for other things to do with the money.
It also has various less desirable side effects. Low rates make it more difficult for banks to earn good profits to restore their damaged balance sheets. The combination of weak banks and tougher regulation means that the extra money created cannot often find its way into the productive economy through the traditional commercial banking system. Savers can feel they need to save more, as the income on their savings falls short, so to some extent low rates discourage the very spending they are meant to encourage. It generates substantial asset price inflation, pushing up the price of commercial property and residential homes as well as the prices of bonds and shares. This has an impact on the real economy, and prevents some people buying a home of their own.
The biggest problem of all with this bond bubble is how do the authorities deal with it when conditions start to alter? The US and UK has removed the extra stimulus of additional official purchases of bonds without undue adverse effects. This has been assisted by the large Japanese and European programmes continuing, encouraging more buyers of US and UK bonds as they seek better income levels than are offered by Japanese or German bonds.
When all the main Central Banks terminate their programmes there could be more of a wobble in markets. If and when these same Central Banks start to raise official interest rates, what will then happen? They will need to think through “normalisation”, and think how owners of bonds will respond if there is no further official purchasing to underwrite high bond values.