With Negative Rates, Homeowners In Europe Are Paid To Borrow
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With Negative Rates, Homeowners In Europe Are Paid To Borrow

Covid-19 is widening the pool of mortgage holders who receive interest.

By Patricia Kowsmann
Fri, Mar 26, 2021 11:12amGrey Clock 3 min

ISBON—Paula Cristina Santos has a dream mortgage: The bank pays her.

Her interest rate fluctuates, but right now it is around minus 0.25%. So every month, Ms. Santos’s lender, Banco BPI SA, deposits in her account interest on the 320,000-euro mortgage, equivalent to roughly $380,000, she took out in 2008. In March, she received around $45. She is still paying principal on the loan.

Ms. Santos’s upside-down relationship with her lender started years ago when the European Central Bank cut interest rates to below zero to reignite the continent’s frail economy in the midst of a sovereign-debt crisis. The negative rates helped everyone get cheap financing, from governments to small companies. It gave an incentive to households to borrow and spend. And it broke the basic rule of credit, allowing banks to owe money to borrowers.

Ms. Santos’s case was supposed to be rare and mostly over by now. After the ECB cut interest rates to below zero in 2014, economies in the eurozone improved and expectations were that rates would rise in a few years. But the coronavirus pandemic changed all that.

As economic pain in Europe drags on, the negative rates remain—and they are getting lower. As a result, more borrowers in Portugal as well as in Denmark, where interest rates turned negative in 2012, are finding themselves in the unusual position of receiving interest on their loans.

“When I took the mortgage, I never imagined this scenario, and neither did the bank,” said Ms. Santos, a 44-year-old business consultant.

Deco, a Lisbon-based consumer-rights group that in 2019 estimated that rates had turned negative on more than 30,000 mortgage contracts in Portugal, said the figure has likely more than doubled since then.

Many European borrowers have variable-rate mortgages tied to interest-rate benchmarks. Like most in Portugal, Ms. Santos’s is tied to Euribor, which is based on how much it costs European banks to borrow from each other. She pays a fixed 0.29% on top of the three-month Euribor rate. When she took out the mortgage in 2008, three-month Euribor was close to 5%. It has been falling in recent months and is now near a record low, at minus 0.54%.

Portugal’s state-owned Caixa Geral de Depósitos SA said about 12% of its mortgage contracts currently carry negative rates. The number of such contracts rose by 50% last year, according to a person familiar with the situation. Ms. Santos’s bank, BPI, said it has so far paid €1 million in interest on mortgage contracts to an undisclosed number of customers.

Spain, where most mortgages are also linked to Euribor, faced a similar situation. But the country passed a law that prevents rates from going below zero. Portugal did the opposite, passing a bill in 2018 that requires banks to reflect negative rates.

“In the event that the decline in interest rates exceeds the mortgage spread, the client would not pay interest, but in no case [would the bank] pay in favour of the borrower,” said a spokesman for Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, one of Spain’s largest lenders.

There are no official figures available on how many mortgages are currently carrying a zero interest rate in Spain. Banks have declined to disclose their numbers.

In Denmark, more borrowers have seen their rates turn negative, although in most cases they are still paying their banks because of an administration fee charge.

There, mortgages aren’t directly financed by the banks, which don’t set their terms. Instead, they serve as a type of intermediary, selling bonds to investors at a specific rate, lending the same amount to the borrower for the same rate.

Nykredit, Denmark’s biggest mortgage lender, said more than 50% of its loans with an interest period of up to 10 years have a negative interest rate before the fee. That proportion is rising because mortgages tend to have their rates adjusted every few years.

That is the case for Claus Johansen, 41, who works in Nykredit’s mortgage department. In 2016, he took on a five-year adjustable-rate mortgage for 1.2 million Danish kroner, equivalent to roughly $190,000, to buy a house north of Copenhagen. His interest repayments for the first five years were set at 0.06%. In January of this year, the rate was revised to minus 0.26%, which is subtracted from a 0.6% administration fee he has to pay the bank.

“It’s odd, but negative rates have been around for so many years, we just got used to it,” Mr. Johansen said.

A flip side to borrowers receiving interest from their lenders is that banks in Denmark and elsewhere have started charging customers for their deposits, saying they can no longer absorb the negative rates their central bank charges them. Mr. Johansen said he keeps his account balance under the threshold at which his bank would start charging him.

In Lisbon, Ms. Santos said that while it is great to receive interest from her bank, her situation overall isn’t better off because BPI has sharply cut the interest it offered on her business deposit account in recent years, to close to zero, from around 3%. Her plans to buy a new house are on hold because BPI is now charging a much higher spread on new mortgages, to avoid falling into the negative-rates trap again.

“We wanted to move out of the city centre, but it is hard to leave such a good mortgage deal behind,” Ms. Santos said.



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Milestone birthdays and anniversaries, weddings, and graduations are momentous life occasions that some like to mark with large and elaborate celebrations.

And the deep-pocketed set are still in catch-up mode after a party-throwing standstill during the pandemic that went on for many months during the height of the lockdowns and social distancing. Bashes since then have become ever more extravagant and experiential—mere get-togethers, they’re not.

Hosts are also seeking any excuse to throw an event and having parties with the same “wow” factor for far less significant reasons, or for micro-occasions as they’re called, and even “just because,” according to luxury event planners who work with this elite set.

Colin Cowie, a planner based in New York and Miami who regularly orchestrates multimillion-dollar gatherings and was behind Jennifer Lopez’s and Ben Affleck’s wedding, calls it the “event revolution.”

“Large-scale events have become the norm,” Cowie says. “The wealthy, who are used to celebrating their life moments in a big way couldn’t do anything during the pandemic and are now going all out for anything they host.”

His company, Colin Cowie Lifestyle, plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid and has a lineup booked for the next two years. An example includes an upcoming million-dollar dinner party in the Hamptons simply to socialise with friends. It’s an affair with free-flowing Dom Perignon, centre-cut filet mignons, and unlimited caviar.

Colin Cowie Lifestyle plans 30% more events today than pre-Covid
Calen Rose

Other high-end planners also attribute the rise of over-the-top celebrations to a “live life to the fullest” attitude that’s become prevalent in the last few years. But they say that these parties aren’t necessarily about spending more than before—rather, they’re increasingly creative, thoughtful, and, with respect to weddings, longer.

Lynn Easton, a Charleston-based planner, says that her typical wedding used to span two days and entailed a rehearsal dinner plus the wedding itself. “Now, it’s a five-day bonanza with events like a groomsman lunch,” Easton says.

Easton also plans glitzy milestone birthdays such as one for a 60th where the host flew 60 friends and family to a private island. Dinners were multi-hour affairs in various locations around the isle with the showpiece being a five-course meal where the food was presented on dishes that were hand-carved in ice.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, based in New York and Miami, says that, in a new precedent, the weddings she’s tapped to design kick off with striking welcome meals. She recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden. Elements included potted herbs, lemon trees, vintage olive oil cans, ceramic plates, and table cards presented with palm leaves in limoncello cans.

Another planner, Victoria Dubin, recently planned an al fresco rehearsal dinner at the Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta’s that recreated a Tuscan garden.
Aletiza Photo

Pashmina shawls hung from chairs to keep guests warm, and freshly baked pizzas and Aperol spritzes were in ready supply throughout the evening.

Stacy Teckin, the groom’s mother, hosted the party with her husband, Ian, and says she sought to pull off a dinner that made an impression on their guests. “The wedding was delayed because of Covid, and now that we had the chance to celebrate, we wanted to go all out,” Teckin says. “I’m not sure we would have done that before.”

In another example, acclaimed planner Norma Cohen threw a wild safari-themed bar mitzvah for a client.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon
Norma Cohen Productions

The memorable occasion transpired at Spring Studios in downtown Manhattan and saw 400 guests be transported to the African plains: Details included mammoth replicas of wildlife such as giraffes and elephants, servers in safari themed attire, and entertainment dressed like giraffes. The event was one of several over-the-top parties Cohen’s arranged recently.

A four-day wedding in Paris where the ceremony was in a historic chateau and the host paid for guests to stay at Hotel Crillon, one of the city’s most luxurious properties, also ranks high in Cohen’s memory.

Then there’s a destination party in London that Cohen planned for a client who was turning 40. It as a six-day affair with dinners at swanky spots such as Cipriani, the Arts Club, and Cecconi’s at Soho House. The finale was Lancaster House, a mansion in St. James, where guests were entertained by cabaret dancers from the famed Ibiza club Lio Ibiza and feasted on prime rib and lamb chops and imbibed on Krug champagne.

“People today don’t want to host events,” Cohen says. “They want experiences that take you away to a different place and make you forget that the real world exists.”