27 January 2009

War gilt

What better way to invest your cash than buying up bonds that helped finance the British during the Great War but which still pay dividends twice a year.

That would be the 1914-1918 war.

In 1917, the British government issued bonds  - known as gilt for the gold edging - at 5% interest. The bonds had no maturity date. 

At least, one investor has been buying them up as a hedge against deflation. The bond issue, currently valued at US$2.9 billion, is unlikely to be redeemed and individual bonds currently trade for less than one pound sterling.

Aside from the curiosity of the notion of 90 year old bonds that are still paying out, this story is interesting for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians for another reason. 

The war bonds originally carried an interest rate of 5% but this was lowered – unilaterally – by the British government in 1931/32 to 3.5% during the early years of the Great Depression.  At around the same time, Newfoundland was struggling under its own crushing debt.

The debt was incurred partially to fund the war and partially to finance a disastrous railway spur line project in the early years of the 20th century.  In any event, Newfoundland was discouraged by the British from unilaterally reducing the interest on its debt since to do so – the British argued – would call into question the financial integrity of the empire.