Is this the beginning of the end for yield?

by Shaun Richards

This week has seen some extraordinary events and it is time to take stock. The truth is that something I have both feared and expected is on motion again. It has come with a familiar refrain that it cant happen here until it does! On this road to nowhere the Corona Virus pandemic is in fact just another brick in the wall. It concerns us now and let me express my sympathy for those affected and afflicted but the world economic system was so rigid after all the central banking intervention that something was always going to turn up.

The point is that each so-called Black Swan event has the same consequence and let me give you the main events this week so far.

 the Federal Open Market Committee decided today to lower the target range for the federal funds rate by 1/2 percentage point, to 1 to 1‑1/4 percent.

At its meeting today, the Board decided to lower the cash rate by 25 basis points to 0.50 per cent. The Board took this decision to support the economy as it responds to the global coronavirus outbreak. ( Reserve Bank of Australia)

This was followed yesterday afternoon by this.

The Bank of Canada today lowered its target for the overnight rate by 50 basis points to 1 ¼ percent. The Bank Rate is correspondingly 1 ½ percent and the deposit rate is 1 percent.

Also there have been the central banks of Malaysia and Moldova. But that is not it as we now expect cuts from the Bank of England and ECB amongst others. Actually before the next Bank of England meeting the US Federal Reserve will probably have cut again as once you are a slave to equity markets that is what you are.

But this is merely a staging post in today’s story because when this party started central banks learnt that their Ivory Tower assumptions were wrong. They assumed that other interest-rates such as mortgage-rates and bond yields would slavishly follow, but they had minds of their own. So we got QE bond buying and then credit easing to deal with that.

Then as the credit crunch developed we saw bond yields fall substantially after various wrong turns. For example the Euro area crisis saw bond yields in double-digits before we entered the “whatever it take” era begun by Mario Draghi.

What about now?

Let me now jump forwards in time Dr. Who style and bring this up to date.

Ten-year US Treasury yields—the benchmark for global financing—got a shove below 1% after the Federal Reserve made an emergency cut to its target rate yesterday. It’s the lowest rate ever, according to records going back to 1871. ( @Ray_O_Johnson  )

It was only a week ago it seemed remarkable it had gone through 1.3% and it opened the year at more like 1.9%. So we learnt that as we expected the US was not as different as so many “experts” have tried to claim as when the going got tough its central bank unveiled the playbook which has been so unsuccessful elsewhere.

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Canada is in a similar position with a ten-year yield of 1.02% although there are two subplots. It has been here before in the credit crunch era and it has seen some wild swings since its official interest-rate move with the yield going as low as 0.88%. Australia is at 0.77% some one and half percent lower than a year ago.

The economic consequences

Let me illustrate for the United States via CNBC.

The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages fell to 3.57% from 3.73% last week. That drop caused a 26% surge in weekly refinance applications, the Mortgage Bankers Association said. Compared with one year ago, refinance volume was nearly 224% higher.

And the beat goes on.

Detroit-based Quicken Loans saw record-setting volume on Monday and Tuesday, as rates fell to a record low. CEO Jay Farner said the new ways of processing loans are making it easier to handle even tremendous volume spikes.

Even the numbers above are behind events as Mortgage News Daily is reporting that the 30-year fixed rate mortgage is now at 3.16% and the 15-year at 2.88%. Actually the trend is clear but it matters who you call.

Some are offering conventional 30yr fixed rates that are as high as 3.5%–even for top tier qualifications.  On the other side of the spectrum, more than a few lenders are quoting 2.875% for the same scenarios.  The average lender is somewhere in between, but that average is nonetheless an all-time low.

So here we have an immediate consequence which central bankers seem to forget in their press releases. This is that the housing market will receive yet another heroin injection. This will be true in Canada and Australia as well and in Australia’s case will add to last year’s 3 interest-rate cuts.

Economics 101 argues that lower costs for business borrowing increase investment. However when the US Federal Reserve looked at the numbers it was much less clear.  I doubt it will stop people claiming that though.

Fiscal Policy

This has just got a lot cheaper pretty much everywhere. This does not get a lot of attention because it is a slow burner as for example the UK issues a new Gilt this week which will be at a yield at least 4% lower than before, But it will be a while before the next one and so on. On the other side of the coin yields have been falling throughout the credit crunch era as a trend so governments have been able to spend more for the same situation. This is another reason why this does not get much attention as governments of whatever hue want to take the credit for this.

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On this road you can see why governments are so keen on “independent” central banks in a you scratch my back and I will scratch yours sort of way.

Comment

There are various lessons to be had here. The most basic is that interest-rates and yields continue to sing along with Alicia Keys.

I keep on fallin’
In and out of love
With you
Sometimes I love ya
Sometimes you make me blue
Sometimes I feel good
At times I feel used
Lovin’ you darlin’
Makes me so confused.

We get occassional rises but the trend is down which means that there has been a change because QE only started because official interest-rates got disconnected to bond yields and mortgage rates. Now we see the link is back. But I think that is just an illusion because some QE is still happening in Japan and the Euro area and more is expected elsewhere. Remember responses to QE now take place before it happens. Other interest-rates sometimes go their own not very merry way as the rise to 40% for unsecured overdrafts in the UK shows

This is really bad news for supporters of the UK Office for Budget Responsibility and the US Congressional Budget Office as their numbers will need large revisions yet again! The mainstream media and “experts” will of course have a case of collective amnesia about this next week for the UK Budget. But the point is seemingly too subtle for them that in the dynamic world in which we now exist such steady-state analysis is in fact misleading.

I think that this is counterproductive for three main reasons.

  1. If pumping up the housing market worked we would have been saved long ago.
  2. The evidence from countries with negative interest-rates and yields is that contrary to economic theory people look to save more which depresses the economy.
  3. Similarly if we look at Germany,Sweden and Switzerland countries with negative yields often look to reduce their debt rather than spend more.

Thus we find that the magic bullet has no magic at all and instead causes pain.

The Investing Channel

 

 

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