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Money for Nothing

With interest rates close to zero throughout the eurozone – and expected to remain low for quite some time – debt-service has become a lot easier, even for countries like Greece and Spain. As a result, the Maastricht Treaty’s cap on public debt – and the "fiscal compact" adopted to reinforce it – is meaningless.

BRUSSELS – The developed world seems to be moving toward a long-term zero-interest-rate environment. Though the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the eurozone have kept central-bank policy rates at zero for several years already, the perception that this was a temporary aberration meant that medium- to long-term rates remained substantial. But this may be changing, especially in the eurozone.

Strictly speaking, zero rates are observed only for nominal, medium-term debt that is perceived to be riskless. But, throughout the eurozone, rates are close to zero – and negative for a substantial share of government debt – and are expected to remain low for quite some time.

In Germany, for example, interest rates on public debt up to five years will be negative, and only slightly positive beyond that, producing a weighted average of zero. Clearly, Japan’s near-zero interest-rate environment is no longer unique.

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