A negative-interest-rate loan is one which, over the course of the loan, requires the borrower to repay less than they originally borrowed. Such loans have received a lot of attention in the business press lately since countries like Germany and Switzerland began issuing bonds with negative yields.
But negative-interest-rate loans aren't just for industrial and financial superpowers anymore! Here are three flavors of negative-interest-rate loans available to the enterprising travel hacker (and one bonus flavor), sorted by the duration of the loan, and suggestions for how to maximize their value.
25-55 days: manufactured spend
Most people think of the profit from manufactured spending as coming from the rewards earned on their spend, and that's true if you liquidate your spend directly back into the cards used to manufacture it.
But when you manufacture spend on a rewards-earning credit card, you're also borrowing money that can be used for other purposes. If you manufacture and liquidate spend on the day your credit card statement closes, you may be able to use the funds for up to 55 days, depending on how long your statement cycle is and how many days your bank gives you to pay.
Possible uses: Besides short-term liquidity, you can get even more value from these short-term negative-interest-rate loans by funding bank accounts that require large deposits in order to trigger signup bonuses. For example, Citi is currently offering a $400 signup bonus for opening a checking account with $15,000 in new money, which has to be kept with Citi for 30 days. $15,000 manufactured on a 2% cash back card and 1% "all-in" cost will net $150 in credit card rewards and $400 from Citi. Since the money was borrowed, that's the equivalent of a negative 44% APR loan.
6-12 months: interest rate arbitrage
If you're anything like me, you're constantly getting balance transfer and cash advance checks in the mail from your credit card companies. For the last year it felt like I was getting two or three offers from Discover every week! The offers can take many forms, but usually include a promotional interest rate on the amount you write the check for, while charging a balance transfer or cash advance fee in the range of 2-5%.
These offers are very bad for short-term liquidity because those fees act as an up-front interest charge which can't be avoided by paying off the balance early, as is the case with manufactured spend.
Possible uses: for medium-term needs, these offers can give you the opportunity to swap out higher-interest-rate debt for lower-rate debt, while generating valuable liquidity. For example, if you have 12 months remaining on a car loan at 5% APR, and are sent a 12-month 0% APR cash advance offer with a 3% cash advance fee, you will not just save money on the total interest you'll pay, but also have the option to swap equal-installment car loan payments for 11 minimum credit card payments and a "balloon" credit card balance pay-off in the 12th month. That added liquidity can be plowed back into manufactured spend, reselling, or any other high-value investment you have available.
12-21 months: savings and investment
There are a range of cards available that offer 0% APR on purchases and/or balance transfers. When those cards are also rewards-earning credit cards, these act as longer-term negative-interest-rate loans. For example, a new application for a Chase Freedom Unlimited will earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent and charge no interest on purchases for 15 months. $10,000 manufactured with that card will earn 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points. If you redeem 10,000 points to cover your manufactured spend costs, the 5,000 remaining points are the negative interest on your 15-month loan.
Possible uses: Depositing the same $10,000 in a 4.59% APY checking account will produce another $459 or so per year, driving the APR on your borrowed funds even further below 0%.
This technique may also be useful if you don't have the funds to maximize your annual contribution to an IRA or other tax-advantaged savings vehicle: using negative interest rate loans to cover your expenses while deducting retirement contributions from earned income can generate valuable savings on federal and state income taxes.
Up to 20 years: federal student loans
Whether or not you think college students should have to borrow to pay for higher education, for many students there is in fact a stark choice between borrowing or not attending college at all. The good news is that as long as long as students borrow exclusively from the federal government's Direct Loan program, they're eligible for the income-based repayment plan, or IBR. Under an IBR plan, any principal and interest balances that aren't repaid after 20 years are forgiven.
This too meets our definition of a negative-interest-rate loan: for borrowers whose repayments after 20 years don't add up to the amount they borrowed, the difference between the amount repaid and amount borrowed will constitute the negative interest they earned during the repayment period.
Possible uses: I don't know if there are actually any ways to leverage these negative-interest-rate loans, so just consider this an advertisement for the income-based repayment program and Federal Direct Loans.
On the other hand, no one should ever take out private student loans, which can be almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy and offer few or none of the alternative repayment options the federal government makes available.
For now, we live in a low-interest-rate, low-yield world. Juicing your investment returns and reducing your interest payments with negative-interest-rate loans is one way to squeeze higher yield from a market that has run out of low-hanging fruit.