Thursday, September 18, 2008

Financial Market Risks and Negative Nominal T-bill Rates

On September 17, in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the AIG bailout, and the mortgage crisis, negative nominal Treasury bill rates briefly appeared for the first time since January 1940. As Madlen Read points out, a negative nominal Treasury bill rate implies that “investors were willing to take a small loss on the security.”

At first glance, such behavior on the part of seasoned investors seems odd. Why pay more for a security than the amount the US Federal government guarantees to pay you in the future1? One possibility would be that the general price level could fall so that the smaller future payment would represent more purchasing power than the current price of the security. That is, if the price level falls enough, the $1000 payment one receives in several months could buy more than, say the $1000.05 price of the bill could buy today. There is some evidence for this: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2008, on a monthly basis, the percentage change in the CPI was 1.1% in June, 0.8% in July, and –0.1% in August. However, if that is the case, one would still get more purchasing power by holding the $1000.05 in cash through the period of falling prices than by receiving only $1000 in the future. Yet, where can such cash be stored safely?

A more likely explanation is that growing fears of systemic risk have discouraged investors from holding any but the safest financial assets. One example of systemic risk comes from the Reserve Primary Fund, the oldest U.S. money-market fund, which lost two-thirds of its asset value due to its investment in Lehman Brothers’s debt. Wary investors fear that similar losses could threaten other financial institutions. Since US Treasuries are generally considered to be the safest investment possible, there was apparently a rush to invest in these securities. Therefore, an increase in demand for T-bills was likely accompanied by a reduced willingness to sell such securities. The latter represents a decline in the supply of T-bills. Both sides of the market then acted in unison to push up the price of T-bills to such an extent that their sales prices briefly exceeded their maturity values. The maturity value, represented on the graph below by the M=1000 line, is the amount, typically $1000, that the bill specifies will be paid to the owner at maturity.

We can solve for the negative nominal rate mathematically using the following formula:

where M is the bill’s maturity value, PB is the bill’s price, and r is its annualized rate of return on the bill when it is held to maturity.

To illustrate the negative rate phenomenon, suppose that for a $1000 maturity value, the market trades a 3-month T-bill at a price of $1000.05. The nominal rate of return, r, is therefore –.02%.

Negative nominal rates were described here in the context of the Japanese market by Daniel L. Thornton in the January 1999 issue of "Monetary Trends." In the article, Thornton states that “investors are willing to accept a negative nominal return on a risk-free asset because holding it is cheaper and less risky than transporting and storing cash.” So it seems that for one day at least, investors were willing to lock in a nominal loss on a safe asset rather than risk leaving cash in financial institutions.

Discussion Questions
1. The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the AIG bailout, and the mortgage crisis have apparently shaken investor confidence in financial institutions. Do you think their fears are justified? Do you believe that these financial events have had an impact on your life? If yes, how, and if not, then why not?

2. How might forecasts of a falling general price level in the near future help to explain investors' willingness to accept negative nominal T-bill rates?

3. The dramatic shifting of funds into the safety of Treasuries implies that funds left other sectors. With many financial sites available, you can find information the returns on various financial assets online. Which investment sectors had the largest declines on Sept. 17, 2008? Which investment sectors had the largest gains on that day? How would you explain the results that you found?
1 Recall that T-bills have zero coupons which means that they make no payment until the maturity date.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Export Restrictions and the Food Crisis

Rising food prices, particularly prices for grains like rice, wheat, and corn, gave way to a global crisis over the past year. For many Americans, the crisis amounts to paying extra for a side of rice with their chicken masala. For the world's poorest citizens, however, the sharp increase in prices seriously hampers health and well-being.

As Paul Krugman outlined in April, the factors behind rising grain prices include growing demand for meat (the production of which requires grain-based animal feed), growing demand for oil (a key input in the production and transportation of grains), some bad luck with weather, and massive public subsidies for biofuels such as the U.S. government's support for corn-based ethanol.

The crisis posed unusual challenges for middle-income countries, like India, that are also major grain exporters. In such countries, higher prices jeopardize the food security of low-income families even as they substantially boost the incomes of farmers. Faced with this predicament, India, Argentina, Russia, Vietnam, and many other countries chose to curb rising prices at the expense of farmers' incomes, imposing export restrictions on key crops such as soybeans, wheat, and rice.

As expected, the export restrictions reduced the incomes of farmers in the restricting countries. Without access to global markets and foreign buyers, domestic farmers ended up receiving lower prices and selling less than they would have in the absence of the restrictions. The restrictions did provide some relief to domestic consumers who ended up paying less and buying more than they would have in the absence of restrictions.

To see why, consider a graph showing the domestic supply (Sd) and demand (Dd) curves for a wheat exporter. Before the restriction, domestic consumers buy 2 million bushels of wheat per month at the going world price (Pw) of $7 per bushel, but domestic farmers sell 8 million bushels of wheat per month. The difference between domestic consumption and production represents exports to the rest of the world (6 million bushels per month). If the government restricts exports to 2 million bushels per month, the domestic price of wheat falls to $5 per bushel (Pr). After the restriction, domestic farmers sell fewer bushels (6 instead of 8 million) at lower prices and domestic consumers buy more bushels (4 instead of 2 million) at lower prices. Domestic farmers lose and domestic consumers gain.

The export restrictions may have kept food prices down in domestic markets of major grain exporters, but from a global perspective, the restrictions undoubtedly prolonged the food crisis. As major grain exporters restricted the amount of grain leaving their borders, the global supply of grains declined, leading to higher grain prices and reduced availability in the rest of the world.

Discussion Questions

1. Recently, several major food exporters have decided to scale back their export restrictions. How will these decisions impact food consumers and farmers in the countries that are removing the restrictions? How will these decisions impact global food prices and availability?

2. Clearly, biofuel subsidies played a role in destabilizing global food markets. Even with biofuels subsidies, though, we might expect higher food prices to give farmers an incentive to bring more land into production or use existing land more efficiently. How do food export restrictions dampen those incentives?

3. How can countries ensure food security for people who are vulnerable to rising food prices without contributing to the food crisis at the global level?

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