Pimco, the $1.5 trillion fixed-income manager located a stone's throw distance from my office in Newport Beach, famously (or infamously) coined the phrase, "New Normal". As former Pimco CEO (Mohamed El-Erian) described years ago, around the time of the Great Recession, the New Normal "reflects a growing realization that some of the recent abrupt changes to markets, households, institutions, and government policies are unlikely to be reversed in the next few years. Global growth will be subdued for a while and unemployment high."
As it turns out, El-Erian was completely wrong in some respects and shrewdly prescient in others. For instance, although the job recovery has been one of the slowest in a generation, 14.5 million private sector jobs have been added since 2010, and the unemployment rate has been more than halved from 10% in early 2009, to below 5% today. However, the pace of global growth has been relatively weak since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has forced central banks all over the world to lower interest rates in hope of stimulating growth. Monetary policies around the globe have been cut so much that almost 25% of global GDP is tied to countries with negative interest rates (see chart below).
Source: Financial Times
The European central banks started the sub-zero trend in 2014, and the Bank of Japan recently joined the central banks of Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in negative territory. The negative short-term rate virus has spread further to long-term bonds as well, as evidenced by the 10-Year German Bund (sovereign bond) yield, which crossed into negative territory last week (see chart below).
The New Abnormal
The unprecedented post-crisis move to a 0% Fed Funds rate target, along with the implementation of Quantitative Easing (QE) by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, was already pushing the envelope of "normal" stimulative monetary policy. Nevertheless, central banks pushing rates to a negative threshold takes the whole stimulus discussion to another level because investors are guaranteed to lose money if they hold these bonds until maturity.
As we enter this new submerged rate phase, this activity can only be described as abnormal… not normal. Preserving money at a 0% level and losing value to inflation (i.e., essentially stuffing money under the proverbial mattress) is a bitter enough pill to swallow. Paying somebody to lend them money gives "insanity" a good name.
The stimulative objectives of negative interest policies established by central bankers may be purely intentioned, however there can be plenty of unintentional consequences. For starters, negative rates can produce too much of a good thing, in the form of excess borrowing or leverage. In addition, retirees and savers across a broad spectrum of ages are getting crushed by the paltry rates, and bank profit margins (net interest margins) are getting squeezed to boot.
Another unintended consequence of negative rate policies could be a polar opposite outcome to the envisioned stimulative design. Scott Mather, a co-portfolio manager of the $86 billion PIMCO Total Return Fund (MUTF:PTTRX), is making the case that these policies could be creating more economic contractionary effects than invigorating expansion. More specifically, Mather notes, "It seems that financial markets increasingly view these experimental moves as desperate and consequently damaging to financial and economic stability."
Eventually, the cheap money deliberately created by central banks will result in a glut of risk-taking and defaults. However, despite all the cries from hawks protesting money printing policies, cautious bank lending behavior coupled with regulatory handcuffs have yet to create widespread debt bubbles. Certainly, oceans of cheap money can create pockets of problems, as I have identified and discussed in the private equity market (see also Dying Unicorns), but supply and demand rule the day at some point.
In the end, as I have repeatedly documented, money goes where it is treated best. Realizing guaranteed losses while trapped in negative rate bonds is no way to treat your investment portfolio over the long-run. In the short-run, the safety and stability of short duration bonds may sound appealing, but ultimately rational and efficient behavior prevails. Why settle for 0% or negative rates when yields of 2%, 4%, and 6% can be found in plenty of other responsible investment alternatives?
Arguably, in this post financial crisis world we live in, we have transitioned from the New Normal to a New Abnormal environment of negative rates. Pundits and prognosticators will continue spewing fear-filled cautionary advice, but experienced, long-term investors will continue taking advantage of these risk averse markets by investing in a quality, diversified portfolio of superior yielding investments. For now, there are plenty of opportunities to choose from, until the next phase of this economic cycle… when the New Abnormal transitions to the New Normalized.
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