Via Louis-Vincent Gave of GK Research (A Gavekal Company),
Lemmings And The Quandary of Negative Real Rates
For most portfolio managers, investable assets can be thought of as sitting somewhere on the risk-return curve shown below. Of course, depending on valuations at a particular point in time, positioning in the economic cycle, or overall geopolitical risks, some of the relative positions may change. But over long periods, investable assets have tended to display the risk-reward characteristics highlighted by the efficient frontier below.
Now in recent decades, investors could assume that across the length of an economic cycle, almost all investments would provide a positive real return. Diversification across the curve made ample sense, and this is precisely what happened: looking at the stock of global assets, one sees that out of an estimated $209trn in global financial assets (excluding real estate), $52trn sits in equity with $45trn in government debt, $65trn in loans (possibly a good chunk of which finances real estate), and $46trn in corporate debt. In other words, roughly one quarter of the world’s financial assets are in equity (on the top-right hand of the risk-return curve) with three quarters in debt (at the bottom left of the curve). This asset mix brings us to the policies followed today by most Western central banks of guaranteeing negative real rates for as long as the eye can see. This policy of negative real rates has an obvious goal: push out investors from the bottom left of the curve to the top right, thereby boosting animal spirits, creating jobs, and returning Western economies to a more solid growth environment. But could these policies suffer from the law of unintended consequences?
If we look at the risk-return curve today it is obvious that 75% of global financial assets are now locking in real losses, unless of course, inflation collapses and deflation takes hold in the major economies. Consider a 2 year treasury bond yielding 0.25% as an example. With inflation running at around 1.7%, anyone buying such an instrument is locking in a -1.5% real capital loss for the next two years. The same argument can be made for Germany where yields are even lower than in the US, even if inflation is running at the same pace (and likely to accelerate further), or indeed Japan, France or the UK... In short, in today’s world, it is almost impossible to gather any kind of real returns on fixed income instruments without either taking significant duration risk and/or quality risk, i.e.: moving up to the right of the curve.
Now let us assume for a second that the world will be spared a massive deflationary wave and that, consequently, the assets at the bottom left of the curve will lose 1.5% real per year every year for the next five years. This means that, for global assets to stay roughly in the same place, equities will need to provide a real return of 4.5% per annum every year for five years. This is broadly in line with the long term return of equity markets and, given that global equities are not blatantly overvalued, such returns may well be achieved. However, it is important to note that such returns will only serve to compensate for the capital destruction taking place in the fixed income market. Real returns on equities of 4.5% will not leave us any richer compared to our starting level. This means that investors will have effectively spent five years on a treadmill running to stand still. When you consider that no asset growth was registered in the previous five years, we are facing a whole decade devoid of capital accumulation. Given the world’s ageing population, isn’t this bound to be problematic?
Indeed, at a time when most pension funds are already far under water, does a policy that locks in real losses for plan managers really make sense? In short, can the world today afford the real capital destruction central banks are engineering through negative real rates (perhaps we can if that capital destruction mostly occurs on the central banks’ own balance sheets?). This quandary brings us back to the law of unintended consequences: just like the pensioner who, sitting on a fixed amount of capital, will simply buy more and more bonds as interest rates are pushed down (for he needs a fixed level of income—witness Japan over the past twenty years), won’t the world’s pension funds, sitting on real losses because of their existing large fixed income holdings, prove ever more resistant to moving to the far right of the curve? Could the negative real interest rate policies, by destroying capital, guarantee the world a period of sub-par investment growth, sub-par productivity growth, and sub-par economic growth instead? This is what occurred in Japan for a decade, once the bank of Japan moved to a zero rate policy. Basically, ZIRP meant the banks could not make much money, nor were they interested in taking much risk or making loans. And without bank credit, the economy just puttered along, while equities continuously de-rated.