There is much to be terrified about in today’s global economy. The eurozone’s death dance, China’s slowdown and America’s inability to create jobs are enough to make the most upbeat investors gloomy. But even these problems pale in comparison with the biggest threat, one with implications so hideous that financiers are reluctant to talk about it even now. The truth is that the economies of rich countries, including the UK, are being kept alive by another and astonishingly under-reported bull market — in government debt. This is the bond bubble; and when it bursts, as it surely will, the result will be a recession far deeper than the crash from which we are trying to recover.
This danger is ignored for a very understandable reason: government bonds are so boring that most people pay them no attention. Yet they fulfil a vital role, crucial to Britain’s nascent economic recovery. Bonds are, in effect, the IOU notes issued by debt-hungry governments. America, unsurprisingly, is the biggest issuer. The bond market is the pipeline of debt, flowing into the British economy and setting the price at which banks lend to mortgage holders and small businesses, as well as the cost of borrowing for the large multinationals that employ so many Britons. Bonds have also become the drug to which the political establishment is now addicted.
These bonds have become dangerously cheap. A new record was set this week, when George Osborne’s Treasury was able to borrow at an astonishing 2.2 per cent a year over a ten-year period. The German government can do so at 1.8 per cent a year, and America at 2 per cent. Crucially, in many cases, the interest rate is less than the expected inflation rate. So the ‘real terms’ interest rate at which governments borrow is actually negative.