Some excerpts from PIMCO's Mr. Gross for the month of February in which he details a major potential risk of the "zero bound" in rates; for full letter go here.
- Recent central bank behavior, including that of the U.S. Fed, provides assurances that short and intermediate yields will not change, and therefore bond prices are not likely threatened on the downside.
- Most short to intermediate Treasury yields are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply limited potential room, if any, for price appreciation.
- We can’t put $100 trillion of credit in a system-wide mattress, but we can move in that direction by delevering and refusing to extend maturities and duration.
Yet the imagination and management of the transition ushers forth a plethora of disparate policy solutions. Most observers, however, would agree that monetary and fiscal excesses carry with them explicit costs. Letting your pet retriever roam the woods might do wonders for his “animal spirits,” for instance, but he could come back infested with fleas, ticks, leeches or worse. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, dog-lover or not, preannounced an awareness of the deleterious side effects of quantitative easing several years ago in a significant speech at Jackson Hole. Ever since, he has been open and honest about the drawbacks of a zero interest rate policy, but has plowed ahead and unleashed his “QE bowser” into the wild with the understanding that the negative consequences of not doing so would be far worse. At his November 2011 post-FOMC news briefing, for instance, he noted that “we are quite aware that very low interest rates, particularly for a protracted period, do have costs for a lot of people” – savers, pension funds, insurance companies and finance-based institutions among them. He countered though that “there is a greater good here, which is the health and recovery of the U.S. economy, and for that purpose we’ve been keeping monetary policy conditions accommodative.”
My goal in this Investment Outlook is not to pick a “doggie bone” with the Chairman. He is makin’ it up as he goes along in order to softly delever a credit-based financial system which became egregiously overlevered and assumed far too much risk long before his watch began. My intent really is to alert you, the reader, to the significant costs that may be ahead for a global economy and financial marketplace still functioning under the assumption that cheap and abundant central bank credit is always a positive dynamic. When interest rates approach the zero bound they may transition from historically stimulative to potentially destimulative/regressive influences. Much like the laws of physics change from the world of Newtonian large objects to the world of quantum Einsteinian dynamics, so too might low interest rates at the zero-bound reorient previously held models that justified the stimulative effects of lower and lower yields on asset prices and the real economy.
At the heart of the theory, however, is that zero-bound interest rates do not always and necessarily force investors to take more risk by purchasing stocks or real estate, to cite the classic central bank thesis. First of all, when rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street.
What perhaps is not so often recognized is that liquidity can be trapped by the “price” of credit, in addition to its “risk.” Capitalism depends on risk-taking in several forms. Developers, homeowners, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes epitomize the riskiness of business building via equity and credit risk extension. But modern capitalism is dependent as well on maturity extension in credit markets. No venture, aside from one financed with 100% owners’ capital, could survive on credit or loans that matured or were callable overnight. Buildings, utilities and homes require 20- and 30-year loan commitments to smooth and justify their returns. Because this is so, lenders require a yield premium, expressed as a positively sloped yield curve, to make the extended loan. A flat yield curve, in contrast, is a disincentive for lenders to lend unless there is sufficient downside room for yields to fall and provide bond market capital gains. This nominal or even real interest rate “margin” is why prior cyclical periods of curve flatness or even inversion have been successfully followed by economic expansions. Intermediate and long rates – even though flat and equal to a short-term policy rate – have had room to fall, and credit therefore has not been trapped by “price.”
When all yields approach the zero-bound, however, as in Japan for the past 10 years, and now in the U.S. and selected “clean dirty shirt” sovereigns, then the dynamics may change. Money can become less liquid and frozen by “price” in addition to the classic liquidity trap explained by “risk.”
Even if nodding in agreement, an observer might immediately comment that today’s yield curve is anything but flat and that might be true. Most short to intermediate Treasury yields, however, are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply little if any room to fall: no margin, no air underneath those bond yields and therefore limited, if any, price appreciation. What incentive does a bank have to buy two-year Treasuries at 20 basis points when they can park overnight reserves with the Fed at 25? What incentives do investment managers or even individual investors have to take price risk with a five-, 10- or 30-year Treasury when there are multiples of downside price risk compared to appreciation? At 75 basis points, a five-year Treasury can only rationally appreciate by two more points, but theoretically can go down by an unlimited amount. Duration risk and flatness at the zero-bound, to make the simple point, can freeze and trap liquidity by convincing investors to hold cash as opposed to extend credit.
Any securities mentioned on this page are not held by the author in his personal portfolio. Securities mentioned may or may not be held by the author in the mutual fund he manages, the Paladin Long Short Fund (PALFX). For a list of the aforementioned fund's holdings at the end of the prior quarter, visit the Paladin Funds website at http://www.paladinfunds.com/holdings/blog