Central banks around the globe are choking on low-yielding bonds, and as result are now expanding their investment menu beyond Treasuries into equities. Expansionary monetary policies purchasing short-term, low-rate bonds means that central banks have been gobbling up securities on their balance sheets that are earning next to nothing. To counteract the bond-induced indigestion of the central banks, many of them are considering increasing their equity purchasing strategies. How can you blame them? With the 10-year U.S. Treasury notes yielding 1.66%; 10-year German bonds eking out 1.21%; and 10-year Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) paying a paltry 0.59%, it's no wonder central banks are looking for better alternatives.
More specifically, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) is planning to pump $1.4 trillion into its economy over the next two years to encourage some inflation through open-ended asset purchases. Earlier this month, the BOJ said it has a goal of more than doubling equity related exchange traded funds (ETFs) by the end of 2014. According to Business Insider, the BOJ is currently holding $14.1 billion in equity ETFs with an objective to reach $35.3 billion in 2014.
I can only imagine how stock market bears feel about this developing trend when they have already blamed central banks' quantitative easing initiatives as the artificial support mechanism for stock prices (see also The Central Bank Dog Ate my Homework).
While expanded equity purchases could break the backs of bond bulls and stock naysayers, some smart people agree that this strategy makes sense. Take Jim O'Neill, the chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who is retiring next week. Here's what he has to say about expanded central bank stock purchases:
Frankly, it makes a huge amount of sense in a world of floating exchange rates and such incredible opportunity, why should central banks keep so much money in very short term, liquid things when they're not going to ever need it? To help their future returns for their citizens, why would they not invest in equity?
How big is this shift towards equities? The Royal Bank of Scotland conducted a survey of 60 central banks that have about $6.7 trillion in reserves. There were 13% of the central banks already invested in equities, and almost 25% of them said they are or will be invested in equities within the next five years.
While I may agree that stocks generally are a more attractive asset class than bubblicious bonds right now, I may draw the line once the Fed starts buying houses, gasoline, and groceries for all Americans. Until then, dividend yields remain higher than Treasury yields, and the earnings yields (earnings/price) on stocks will remain more attractive than bond yields. Once stocks gain more in price and/or bonds sell off significantly, it will be a more appropriate time to reassess the investment opportunity set. A further stock rise or bond selloff are both possible scenarios, but until then, central banks will continue to look to place its money where it is treated best.
The central bank menu has been largely limited to low-yielding, overpriced government bonds, but the appetite for new menu items has heightened. Stocks may be an enticing new option for central banks, but let's hope they delay buying houses, gasoline, and groceries.
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