In the future will everybody be paid to issue debt?

by Shaun Richards

This morning has brought a couple of developments on a road I have both expected and feared for some time. This road to nowhere became a theme as I questioned how central banks would respond to the next slow down? We have two examples of that this morning as we see industrial profits in China fall 14% year on year after quality adjustment or 27% without ( h/t @Trinhnomics). Also we have some clear hints – much more useful than so-called Forward Guidance – from ECB President Mario Draghi. So let me jump to a clear consequence of this.

The stockpile of global bonds with below-zero yields just hit $10 trillion — intensifying the conundrum for investors hungry for returns while fretting the brewing economic slowdown.

A Bloomberg index tracking negative-yielding debt has reached the highest level since September 2017………

This latest move if you look at their chart has taken the amount of negative yielding debt from less than US $6 trillion last September to US $10 trillion now as we observe what a tear it has been on. So if you buy and hold to maturity of these bonds you guarantee you will make a loss. So why might you do it?

While negative yields on paper suggest that investors lose money just by holding the obligations, bond buyers could also be looking at price gains if growth stalls and inflation stays low. But along the way, risk assets may be entering the danger zone.

So one argument is the “greater fool” one. In the hope of price gains someone else may be willing to risk a negative yield and an ultimate loss should they hold the bond to maturity.

However there always ways a nuance to that which was that of a foreign investor. He or she may not be too bothered by the risk of a bond market loss if they expect to make more in the currency. This has played out in the German and Swiss bond markets and never went away in the latter and is back in the former. Also investors pile into those two markets in times of fear where a small loss seems acceptable. This has its dangers as those who invested in negative yielding bonds in Italy have discovered over the past year or two.

The more modern nuance is that you buy a bond at a negative yield expecting the central bank to buy it off you at a higher price and therefore more negative yield. Let me give you an example from my country the UK yesterday afternoon. The Bank of England paid 144 for a UK Gilt maturing in 2034 which will mature at 100. This does not in this instance create a negative yield but it does bring a much lower one as a Gilt issue with a 4.5% coupon finds its yield reduced to 1.32%. There was a time the thought that a UK Gilt would be priced at 144 would only raise loud laughs. I also recall that the Sledgehammer QE of the summer of 2016 did create negative yields in the UK albeit only briefly. Of course in real terms ( allowing for inflation) that made the yield heavily negative.

The Euro area

The activities of the European Central Bank under Mario Draghi and in particular the QE based bond buyer have added to the negative yielding bond total. This morning he is clearly pointing us to the danger of larger negative interest-rates and yields as he focuses on what to him is “the precious”.

We will continue monitoring how banks can maintain healthy earning conditions while net interest margins are compressed. And, if necessary, we need to reflect on possible measures that can preserve the favourable implications of negative rates for the economy, while mitigating the side effects, if any. That said, low bank profitability is not an inevitable consequence of negative rates.

This matters because so far banks have found it difficult to offer depositors less than 0%. There have been some examples of it but in general not so . Thus should the ECB offer a deposit rate even lower than the current -0.4% the banks would be hit and for a central banker this is very concerning. This is made worse in the Euro area by the parlous state of some of the banks. Mario is also pointing us towards the ” favourable implications of negative rates for the economy” which has led Daniel Lacalle to suggest this.

Spain: Mortgage lending rises 16% in the middle of a slowdown with 80% of leading indicators in negative territory.

There is an attempt by Mario to blame Johnny Foreigner for the Euro area slow down.

The last year has seen a loss of growth momentum in the euro area, which has extended into 2019. This has been predominantly driven by pervasive uncertainty in the global economy that has spilled over into the external sector. So far, the domestic economy has remained relatively resilient and the drivers of the current expansion remain in place. However, the risks to the outlook remain tilted to the downside.

Those involved in the domestic economy might be worried by the use of the word “resilient” as that is usually reserved for banks in danger of collapse and we know what invariably happens next. But no doubt you have noted that in spite of the rhetoric we are pointed towards the economy heading south.

Then we get the central banking mic-drop as we wonder if this is the new “Whatever it takes ( to save the Euro)”.

We are not short of instruments to deliver on our mandate.

That also qualifies as an official denial especially as the actual detail shows that things from Mario’s point of view are not going well.

The weakening growth picture has naturally affected the inflation outlook as well. Our projections for headline inflation this year have been revised downwards and we now see inflation at 1.6% in 2021. Slower growth will also lead to a more muted recovery in underlying inflation than we had previously expected.

Comment

We have seen today that not only are there more people finding that debt pays in a literal sense but we have arrived in a zone where more of this is in prospect. I have explained above how this morning has brought a suggestion that there will be more of it in the Euro area and by implication around Europe as it again acts as a supermassive black hole. But let me now introduce the possibility of a new front.

Back in the 1980s the superb BBC television series Yes Prime Minister had an episode where Sir Humphrey Appleby suggests to Prime Minister Jim Hacker.

Why don’t you announce a cut in interest-rates?

Hacker responds by saying the Bank of England will not do it to which Sir Humphrey replies by suggesting a Governor who would ( and then does…). Now in a modern era of independent central banks that cannot possibly happen can it?

 He said the Fed should immediately reverse course and cut rates by half a percentage point.

Those are the words of the likely US Federal Reserve nominee Stephen Moore as spoken to the New York Times. Just in case you think that this is why he is on his way to being appointed I would for reasons of balance like to put the official denial on record.

And he promised he would demonstrate independence from Mr. Trump, whose agenda Mr. Moore has helped shape and frequently praised.

Returning directly to my theme of the day this in itself would not take US yields negative but a drop in the official interest-rate from 2.5% to 2% would bring many other ones towards it. For a start it would make us wonder how many interest-rate cuts might follow? Some of these thoughts are already in play as the US Treasury Note ten-year yield which I pointed out was 2.5% on Friday is 2.39% as I type this, In the UK the ten-year Gilt yield has fallen below 1% following the £2.3 billion of Operation Twist style QE as it refills its coffers on its way back to £435 billion.

 

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