Bain & Co., the private equity firm that you might have heard of during the presidential campaign last year, has come out with a fascinating set of projections for the global capital markets. The specific numbers are interesting, but few of us can know exactly what they mean. We can understand the generality of Bain's report: The world is awash in money looking for someplace to invest that will earn a return, and over the rest of this decade, the amount of money looking to be invested will grow by about 50%. What does that imply?
- Low short-term interest rates that we now attribute to central bank activities may remain low, even if and when the central banks stop buying securities and raise the basic rates at which banks can borrow from them.
- If interest rates remain low, where is capital going to go to earn income? It must go up the risk curve because although capital can sit idle, earning little for a while, it cannot do so for the long term.
- If capital must go up the risk curve, it must invest in junk bonds and equity, as well as fancier strategies that seek to take advantage of small arbitrage opportunities. Junk bonds will, therefore, suffer losses from time to time, and the arbitrage opportunities will be competed away by the smart people managing the money looking for the opportunities. That will leave equity as the most likely place for decent returns. But those returns also will be competed away as world markets get frothier, simply because there is nowhere else for the money to go. That will lead to another crash when interest rates turn back up, probably as a result of a spike in inflation, or due to some other unsettling event.
I will assume that Bain's projection is more or less accurate, and based on that assumption, I will try to flesh out its likely meaning.
1. Low Interest Rates
Bain estimates that the global capital market is now about $600 trillion, and that it will reach $900 trillion by 2020. I note that McKinsey estimated the global financial market at $212 trillion in 2011. Quite probably, the Bain numbers involve some double counting due to leverage such as repos in which the security is utilized more than once.
$300 trillion is lot of new money to find decent investments over merely a seven- or eight-year period. Even half that amount would be hard to absorb. The size of the global stock markets is about $60 trillion. The U.S. sovereign debt securities market is about $16 trillion. All the banks in the world are about $100 trillion. All the hedge funds in the world are about $4 trillion. Where is all that new money going to go?
Wherever the money goes, it has to prevent relatively riskless short-term interest rates from going up very much, simply because the supply of investable money is so great. If Bain is right about the amount by which investable capital will grow, then the extra $5 trillion or so of assets that central banks hold at the moment should absorbed into the capital markets with ease and without boosting short-term interest rates appreciably. (Long-term rates are more dependent upon other factors besides supply and demand, including inflation expectations, which may change as central banks reduce their leverage -- if they do so.)
2. Capital Must Go Up The Risk Curve
With interest rates low for an extended period of time, capital must continue to go up the risk curve. It must do so because otherwise, pension funds will not be able to pay benefits, savers will not be able to earn on their money, and money managers will not get paid. Perhaps the last point is the most important. Active money managers of all types get paid by investors only because the investors believe that they can make more money for their capital. That forces managers, in their own interests, to take risks. Don't take my word for it. Take a look at the brilliant speech by Federal Reserved Board Governor Jeremy Stein last week. He explains the mechanism through which the agency problem operates here almost to guarantee that in an extended low-interest-rate environment, investors will take greater risks. There is ample evidence that risk-taking has increased already. Some brokers go even further: They sell the illusion of higher returns with safety. Of course, safety is the illusion.
Capital can sit idle for short periods of time. But over the long term, if short-term interest rates are low, it must take risks. They can be credit risks, interest rates risks or market risks. But risks must be taken.
3. Equities Will Benefit From The Risk-Taking
The risks that capital will take will be various. Gold and real estate have obvious market risks, as do equities. Long-term bonds have obvious credit risk. Adding leverage increases whatever risks are taken, but also can add to returns. Many people and institutions will elect to take the leveraging risks because they are not as obvious. Of course, the leveraging risks add risk not only to the individual investor or institution, but to the entire financial system as well.
Equities, the asset class that I like to invest in, should benefit from the global rise of available capital. Gradually, it should result in higher valuations relative to traditional metrics. It is quite possible that we have seen that in action already, as the U.S. stock market has been elevated by many measures since 2010. Although that is unlikely to continue forever, additional investable liquidity in a continued low-interest-rate environment is bound to induce investors to seek returns that are less certain than historical metrics would suggest to be prudent in light of the accompanying risks. For a look at some of the high metrics, see Doug Short's article at SA here, as well as other articles that he has written on similar subjects.
Many investors make their asset allocation decisions emotionally, based on the most recent events in the markets. Many have essentially been out of the stock market since the lows of late 2008-early 2009, leaving one of the greatest bull markets in history for others to benefit from. Some of those investors are returning to the market this year. This may be a bad time to do so, despite my longer-term prognostication. Markets can be skittish for a variety of reasons, so the market may go down tomorrow and may continue to go down for a period of time. Good investors know that, and prepare for it mentally as well as by having money to invest when the market is down.
How out of historical kilter will the metrics go? I am a pretty fearless prognosticator, but even I will not venture any guesses.
4. Eventually, The Risks Will Come To Fruition
A time will come when, despite the world still being awash in liquidity, the overall level of risks being taken is going to spook market participants in all of the risky assets and strategies -- probably all at one time. When that happens, there will be another great unwind. Probably it will look very different from 2007-2009, but its results may be similar. All the risky plays will collapse at once, and those who have leveraged their plays will be hurt the most.
5. When Is Eventually?
Eventually comes when there is a market shock. It may be inflation. It may be war. It may be the pricking of a bubble in some asset class that causes investors in all asset classes to feel potential contagion and therefore, actual contagion. Few investors will be able to predict when it is going to happen. But I will predict that it is not going to happen for awhile. In the meantime, the stock markets will meander up and down, but secularly up, and those who elect to sit on the sidelines are likely to have low returns unless they decide to take other risks, such as high leverage, a great deal of interest rate or liquidity risk, or get lucky with an alternative asset class.
The lesson -- there has to be a lesson or what would be the point -- is that owning risk assets (not highly leveraged) for the near, and probably intermediate, term looks like it will be fine. In the long term, however, the day will come when the chickens come home to roost. Sensible investors therefore, will design their portfolios to take advantage of the relative risk-on period that is likely to continue, while covering their downsides where possible. That is easier said than done, I realize. In a future article, I will say what I am going to try to do to pull off that trick. (Don't expect that article tomorrow. It may take awhile to figure out the best strategy.)
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.