The curious world of finance gets curiouser

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

These days when I want to take refuge from the real world and indulge in fantasy, I read the financial newspapers.

Seriously, there's sometimes more make-believe in Wall Street and the City of London than in Alice's Wonderland.

Here's one on a recent front page of the Financial Times: "Switzerland makes history by selling 10-year debt at negative interest rate."

I am no financial expert and had to read the story twice to understand what it was about.

You see, normally, if you buy a bond, the seller has to pay you an interest, to make you part with your hard-earned money.

That's part of the attraction of buying it - you get regular payments over and above what you've paid for it.

But what happens when, as in this Swiss case, the interest rate is negative?

It means you, the buyer, pay the seller for letting him have your hard-earned money.

As if this wasn't curious enough, the story went on to say that these negative yield bonds are the fastest-growing financial instruments, making up one-quarter of Europe's government debt market.

Okay, so you don't understand bonds anyway, and they are as mysterious to you as the Cheshire Cat's grin.

How about something more down-to-earth, like borrowing money from a good old-fashioned bank?

Ms Eva Christiansen, a sex therapist, became famous in Denmark recently when she took a loan from one of its banks at a negative interest rate. Yes, she got paid for borrowing money - at an interest rate of minus 0.0172 per cent.

Experts say it might not be long before customers have to pay the bank for depositing their money there.

As Alice would say, it gets curiouser and curiouser.

And the reason?

These are troubling times requiring desperate measures.

The developed world - mainly Europe and Japan - has been stuck in low growth since the great recession of 2008, and their governments have run out of ideas, and the political will, to sort out their problems.

The head of the International Monetary Fund, Ms Christine Lagarde, warned a week ago that this new normal might become the new reality if decisive action isn't taken soon.

Referring to this in a speech on April 11, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said: "That's a very real prospect. The advanced economies are now in a new phase. They have not broken out of a rut of loss of confidence, high unemployment, low investment, and very little of this forward-looking spirit."

So what have these countries done?

They lowered interest rates so low they couldn't go down further except into negative territory.

All this to encourage people to borrow so they will spend or invest in new businesses and, hopefully, spur growth.

You would expect that amid such depressing talk, there would be doom and gloom everywhere.

Instead, stock markets in these countries are at record highs.

European shares are at 15-year peaks and the Nikkei stock index in Tokyo climbed briefly to 20,000 for the first time since 2000. In the United States, the S&P 500 is just below its record level.

Even the Singapore market is at a seven-year high.

It's another Wonderland moment when what happens in the real economy of factories and jobs seems so far removed from that of bonds and equities.

What's the reason for this?

Some critics might say it's because the maddest party has been happening at central banks.

The Federal Reserve Bank of America has pumped more money into the system than ever before to stimulate growth in the economy. Its counterparts in Japan and Europe have followed suit.

It's called quantitative easing (which is different from printing money, so they claim), and it has been credited with stopping the US economy from spiralling downhill following the collapse of Lehman Bank in 2008.

("A likely story indeed!" said the Pigeon in a tone of the deepest contempt. "I've seen a good many girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that. No, no! You're a serpent; and there's no use denying it.")

So, is the American lesson that printing money is the way to get out of trouble?

For the US, it sure looks like it.

Not only is it recovering better than the rest of the developed world, but also its dollar is now stronger than it was before the crisis.

Now, that's a trick even the White Rabbit would have been proud to pull off.

Normally, when a country prints more money, it can expect the value of its currency to go down.

But not, it seems, in this brave new world.

What's the implication of all this for Singapore?

The conventional wisdom is that Singapore is a small country that has to take the world as it is, not as what it believes it ought to be.

In technical speak, it's a price taker, not a price setter.

This hard-headed, pragmatic approach has guided the country in its international dealings, both on economic and diplomatic issues.

It requires a good and realistic understanding of how the world works, not just at the surface but also in not-so-obvious, hidden ways.

In economic development, for example, the Singapore way was to focus on the real economy - jobs, investments, skills, education and infrastructure.

Take care of these things, and the money side of the economy will take care of itself.

For Singapore, it has been a sound approach.

But what happens when the world as it is has changed to something else which doesn't follow the old rules of the game?

It means a doubly uncertain future, one that will be especially challenging for countries dependent on global trade and finance.

An example of this in recent years was how wealthy foreign buyers flush with cash pushed up high-end property prices until the Government stepped in with its cooling measures.

It will require policymakers and businessmen to understand the new rules, be sensitive to the changes that have taken place and be prepared to discard old assumptions.

I hope they are up to it.

hanfk@sph.com.sg