In historic sale, Greek debt carries negative interest rate

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, left, speaks with the European Council President Donald Tusk during their meeting at Maximos Mansion in Athens, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. EU leaders have demanded more "realism" from Britain in response to a Brexit plan proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
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More than a year after Greece exited its bailout programs, investors made history in the country Wednesday by buying its short-term debt at a negative yield, meaning they volunteered at least in theory to get less money back than they paid.

Greece’s debt management agency said it raised 487.5 million euros ($535 million) selling 13-week treasury bills for which the yield was -0.02%. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the sale of bills with a negative yield was a first for Greece..

“To put it simply, we’re being paid to borrow money,” Mitsotakis told his center-right party’s lawmakers.

Other European countries offer even measlier returns on their treasury bills.

Lending at a loss, however small, appears daft. But many investors see government bonds as a safe place to channel excess liquidity amid global instability and stock market turmoil; the negative yield means they are willing to pay a fee for that safety.

Negative rates in Greece and elsewhere in Europe also result from European Central Bank monetary stimulus. The bank plans a new round of bond purchases, which would pump newly printed money into the economy to support stronger inflation and growth.

The expected purchases have driven government bond prices up and yields, which move in the opposite direction, down into negative territory at times.

Large swaths of the European government bond market trade in negative territory. Germany sold a 30-year bond at a negative yield.

With more negative yields on the debts of other countries, Greece offers better terms for those determined to buy short-term debt.

At the start of its financial crisis, in 2010, Greece was locked out of bond markets as investors feared they wouldn’t get their money back. Bondholders were in fact later forced to accept large losses on their investments.

From then until August 2018 Greece survived on international bailouts that were provided on the condition the country balanced its budget, cut spending, increased tax revenues and reformed the economy.

Greece’s borrowing costs have declined steadily this year but remain higher than those of other European countries that went through recent financial rough patches, such as Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Portugal.

The improved economy and better budget execution lower the perceived risk for investors interested in buying Greek debt, particularly short-term. Nevertheless, the country’s credit rating is still well below investment grade.

Analyst Manos Chadzidakis, the head of research at Beta Securities, said the decline in Greek yields would benefit domestic corporate borrowing costs, which rocketed during the financial crisis.q