Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told a congressional committee Thursday that the U.S. economy faces some significant risks, and Fed officials are still deciding what to do about it.
His remarks disappointed a lot of investors who want the Fed to do something to revive growth. Bernanke spoke at a time when interest rates on government debt are hitting lows not seen since the Great Depression.
Here's another sign of just how weak the U.S. economy is: The interest rate on the 10-year Treasury bond issued by the government fell last week to 1.5 percent. That means, if you bought such a bond and inflation stayed about where it is now, you wouldn't make any money.
"You would get your principal back," says John Canavan, who covers the credit markets at Stone & McCarthy. "In real terms, if inflation over the next 10 years is more than 1.5 percent, then yes, you would end up with a little less money than if you simply hoarded cash."
And yet, people all over the world keep buying U.S. Treasury debt. The rates on Japanese and German debt are even lower. Why would anyone buy a bond with such a poor return?
For one thing, Canavan says a lot of fund managers across the globe have money to invest right now, and they're required to do something with it; they can't just hold it as cash.
"They have to find a place to invest," Canavan says. "So for Treasurys, they're willing to accept the risk of walking away with somewhat lower real returns, in return for just getting it all back."
In this highly volatile world economy — with much of Europe in a recession and China slowing — investors just don't know where to put their money, so they'd rather sink it in U.S. government debt. They might lose a little money there, but at least the losses won't be too great.
Joseph Gagnon, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is a little perplexed by how risk-averse investors have become. He says there are currently a lot of good investment opportunities — like corporate bonds and stocks that pay dividends. And yet, investors don't bite.
"American corporations are sitting on record piles of cash, just sitting in bank deposits and Treasury bills and bonds at these low rates, when they could be investing in something that would make a profit. And that's what I don't understand," Gagnon says.
He says a lot of this is because of a weakness in demand. It's the same reason companies don't want to build new factories or hire people. They're worried that they won't be able to sell what they make.
Gagnon says in an environment like this, something unusual happens to the markets.
"One of the things that really marks this crisis, and marks crises in general, is that interest rates on the safest assets decline more than other interest rates."
He says investors always want a little more money the riskier an asset is. They demand a higher rate for a junk bond than a municipal bond, for instance. The difference between the two is called the spread. In fearful times like this, the spread tends to widen.
Take mortgage rates: They've fallen a lot in recent years, and it's benefited the housing market. But they haven't fallen as far as Treasury bonds. Banks would rather keep their money in safe assets like Treasurys than lend it out for mortgages that could go bad.
Gagnon, who used to work at the Federal Reserve, says the Fed can do things to bring mortgage rates down even further.
"If they do more action, that's where I would focus it on, because that spread's widened lately, and it could come down," he says.
The Fed has already been doing this — buying up long-term debt and making more money available to the mortgage market. But as investor confidence wanes, the Fed may decide it's time to step up its efforts.
Correction June 8, 2012
Previous audio and Web versions of this story incorrectly stated that investors would be better off keeping their money under a mattress than they would be investing in U.S. Treasury bonds.