Guy Brandon Posted: 14 March 2012
Keywords: Finance & the Economy,
The Treasury has announced that it is considering issuing bonds with a 100-year repayment date, or even longer. 'Super long' gilts - last issued to help pick up the cost of World War 1 - would have no set redemption date.
The idea behind this scheme is to lock in low interest rates for government borrowing for many decades to come. Bonds pay a fixed interest rate for their term, at which point their face value is returned to the bondholder. Selling very long-term, low-rate bonds would mean that the government would save money on debt repayment - an estimated £20 billion over the next five years. It also means that there is less of a problem refinancing short-term debt (one of Greece's big problems), reassuring investors of the UK's top credit rating.
The plan has been compared to taking out a very long mortgage at a fixed rate. Alternatively, 'perpetual bonds', with no repayment date, are more like an interest-only mortgage, or paying off just the interest on a credit card - albeit at a far lower rate.
In the Old Testament, debt was only ever intended to be a short-term solution to poverty. Charging interest was banned, and every seven years debts were supposed to be cancelled (Deut. 15), ensuring that no one remained in debt indefinitely.
We live in a very different world, and debt and interest are an integral part of our economy. However, one thing that super-long bonds would do is normalise indebtedness, even more than it already is. They are a way of not paying off debt - treading water by keeping up with the interest, but never reducing the capital owed.
Under the current economic conditions there may be some sense to that in the short term. Over the long run, though, what might the effect be - both on the economy and culturally, in terms of what we see as the purpose of debt?