Grant's Almost Daily, submitted by Grant's Interest Rate Observer
So much winning
“The cultural level of a nation is mirrored by its rate of interest: the higher a people’s intelligence and moral strength, the lower the rate of interest.” Thus declared economist Eugen von Böhm Bawerk, according to Richard Sylla and Sidney Homer’s classic tome A History of Interest Rates. By that logic, Europe is the domain of superhumans, as the overnight deposit rate has resided below zero since June 2014 and at negative 40 basis points since March 2016.
The M.D. overseeing Europe’s monetary affairs has his own version of the Hippocratic Oath. Speaking at the ECB’s annual forum at the resort town of Sintra, Portugal today, ECB president Mario Draghi made waves by suggesting the central bank will impose still lower interest rates:
Further cuts in policy interest rates and mitigating measures to contain any side effects remain part of our tools. . . Negative rates have proven to be a very important tool in the euro area.
In the absence of improvement, such that the sustained return of inflation to our aim is threatened, additional stimulus will be required.
The implications are clear. Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, told Bloomberg: “Draghi is going to finish his tenure [set to end on Oct. 31] with a cut. The door is now open and I don’t see how they can not walk through it.” Mike Riddell, fund manager at Allianz Global Investors, noted: “The ECB has just handed the bond bulls an ammunition dump.”
Five years and counting into the negative rate era, the ECB’s increasingly radical policies designed to hot up inflation simply haven’t worked. Eurozone CPI rose just 1.2% year-over-year in May, the lowest figure in over a year. Likewise, the “five year, five year inflation swap rate,” Draghi’s preferred metric for the future inflation expectations that the central bank is so eager to manipulate, fell to a record low 1.14% on Friday, since rebounding to 1.23% but still well below the five-year average of 1.48%, let alone the ECB’s now-symmetrical, “close to 2%” bogey.
While inflation stubbornly refuses to follow the playbook, the bond market has been more easily cowed. Following Draghi’s remarks today, the French 10-year yield temporarily broke below zero for the first time ever, while Sweden (which resides outside of the eurozone currency bloc but is an E.U. member state) also saw its 10-year borrowing costs make their first ever foray into negative territory.
More broadly, the worldwide sum of negative-yielding debt instruments rose to $11.8 trillion as of yesterday, up from less than $6 trillion as recently as last fall and within range of the record $12.2 trillion seen in July 2016 (when the 10-year Treasury yielded less than 1.4%, compared to 2.06% today). Never in the 4,000 years of human history, per Sylla, were negative rates seen in substantial size prior to this cycle. The upside-down policy rate extends to the less-creditworthy members of the E.U., as Baa3/triple-B-rated Italy and B1/double-B-minus-rated Greece saw their 10-year yields fall to 2.12% and 2.51%, respectively, not far above the split-rated (triple-A at Moody’s, double-A-plus at S&P) United States.
The peculiar state of affairs has not seemed to help the Old Continent’s frail banking system, which lags far behind global peers in terms of profitability and valuation (Almost Daily Grant’s, May 28). As the banks list, one of the shakiest institutions continues to search for answers. Bloomberg reports today that Deutsche Bank A.G. (which has seen shares fall 84% in the last nine years to less than 21% of its year-end 2018 book value) CEO Christian Sewing is set to “purge” a number of top executives and is also “zeroing in on another round of deep trading cuts that may result in the shuttering of the U.S. equities” division.
Others take a different tack. Speaking on a conference panel this morning, Cornelius Riese, co-CEO of Frankfurt-based DZ Bank A.G. (Germany’s second-largest by assets), observed that negative rates indeed “have a huge impact on banks.” Riese ventured to offer some gentle criticism of Draghi & Co.’s grand policy experiment: “Maybe at the end of the story, in three to five years, we will notice it was a historical mistake.”
Not everyone was so circumspect. This morning, Donald Trump took to Twitter to complain:
Mario Draghi just announced more stimulus could come, which immediately dropped the Euro against the Dollar, making it unfairly easier for them to compete against the USA. They have been getting away with this for years, along with China and others.