Cambridge can send David Cameron a thank-you note for its rock bottom borrowing costs
Can you afford not to borrow right now? If you're a big, AAA-rated institution like the University of Cambridge, the answer is probably no -- which is why it's issuing a bond for the first time in its 800-year history. Hey, these guys know historically low interest rates when they see them.
Just how low is historically low? Well, interest rates have had nowhere to go but up for years now, and might still for years more. The chart below, courtesy of the Guardian, puts today's near-zero interest rates in historical context, going all the way back to when the Bank of England was created in 1694. Notice the flat line at the far right, just barely above the x-axis.
Anybody and everybody who can tap capital markets should be locking in these rates. Cambridge has, to the tune of a 40-year, £350 million ($560 million) bond. Because, research facilities! As if they need a reason when money is free.
There's another institution that should be taking notes -- the British government. As Matt Yglesias of Slate points out, it's both hilarious and irrelevant that the British government has a lower credit rating than Cambridge. The government borrows for basically nothing in a currency it controls. It can't default on its debts, though it can inflate them away. Now, inflation risk is a real risk for investors, but it's no less a risk for investors who buy Cambridge's bonds, since the university also borrows in sterling. In other words, the British government should worry about what markets, and not credit rating agencies, think about their creditworthiness.
Right now, the market's message is to spend, spend, spend. Investors would still rather pay the government to hold their money than risk it in stocks. There are no free lunches in economics, but this comes awfully close. Brad DeLong and Larry Summers think borrowing money to put people back to work might actually pay for itself right now, since it keeps our capital stock from falling too low and the unemployed from becoming unemployable. In other words, the future cost of more debt might be less than the future cost of more stagnation.
More stagnation is what Britain has now. They can thank the Conservative-led coalition for that. David Cameron tried to preempt a debt crisis, but it's only worsened their growth crisis. His mistake has been to worry about rising interest rates, when he should worry about interest rates not rising. Huh? There are two reasons interest rates might rise: default risk and inflation risk. Britain doesn't have to worry about the former, and shouldn't worry about the latter. They should actually welcome it. More inflation would be a sign of more growth right now. Interest rates would climb, but for the good reason that investors are regaining their animal spirits. The Cameron government has missed this. They think the point is to keep rates low, lest they turn into Greece. In this they have succeeded -- the keeping rates low bit. Premature austerity has killed growth, which has killed confidence, which has helped keep rates down. Rinse and repeat.
It's terrible for Britain, but great for Cambridge, now that they're breaking their 800-year debt-free streak. I can think of at least one former professor would be happy his alma mater hasn't forgotten that the slump is not the right time for austerity.
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Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.