Monday, November 23, 2009

Bills Yielding Zero as Stocks Soar Make 1938 Moment

For the first time in seven decades, Treasury bills are paying no interest while stocks continue to appreciate -- a divergence in U.S. financial markets that might be perilous if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke didn't know all about 1938.

That's when the Standard & Poor's 500 Index climbed 25 percent even as bill rates tumbled to 0.05 percent from 0.45 percent. As 1939 began, stocks began a three-year, 34 percent decline after the Fed increased borrowing costs prematurely to stymie inflation that never materialized.

While almost no one expects Bernanke, a self-described "Great Depression" buff, to raise rates before mid-2010, bond investors say with unemployment above 10 percent and housing taking another downturn, they have no qualms about lending the government money for nothing to ensure their capital is preserved. Stock investors, meanwhile, say the worst is over and that low borrowing costs coupled with the $12 trillion of fiscal and monetary stimulus will bolster earnings.

"The question is what are you going to do with all the money that has been created?" said James Hamilton, a former visiting scholar at the Fed who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. "It's not a contradiction at all to see very low short-term yields and at the same time have people trying to buy stocks. They are both reflecting that same force."