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Negative Yielding Debt: A Party for Investors or Pure Stupidity?


  • Almost 30% of global sovereign debt comes with a negative yield.
  • The situation is much worse in Japan and Europe than it is in the U.S.
  • Investors should enjoy the asset inflation party while it lasts but also be prepared for the worst.

Introduction

Negative yielding debt seemed impossible and illogical for a long time, but it suddenly became a reality a few years ago and now we are seeing it slowly become the new normal.

This isn’t just strange, it’s dangerous as risk averse investors—like pension funds and insurance companies—are forced to invest in assets that have traditionally been considered safe but that have now become risky, and their returns minimal. Those low returns will result in lower pensions and lower savings which will create new troubles in the future.

This article will analyze how we arrived negative interest rates, what the current situation is globally, and what the long term implications will be for your portfolio.

History and the Current Situation

Negative interest rates started with a few European central banks cutting their interest rates below zero in 2014 (Switzerland and Sweden), followed by Japan in 2016. The EU is not far behind with its 0% interest rate. Apart from central banks’ negative interest rates, high demand for bonds also pushes the yields below zero. With the European Central Bank buying 169 billion of bonds per month with its asset purchase program, it also distorts the markets, and pushes bond prices up, creating negative yields.

It is now estimated that 30% of global sovereign debt has a negative yield.

figure 1 negative yielding debt
Figure 1: Global debt by yield. Source: Wall Street Journal.

Per country, the worst situation is in Switzerland where the complete yield curve is negative, even for bonds maturing in 2049. Germany and Japan have negative yields on debt maturing in 10 years with yields of -0.17% and -0.28% respectively, while The Netherlands and France are not far away with yields at 0.02% and 0.12% respectively. The situation is much worse for debts with shorter maturities.

figure 2 euro yield curve
Figure 2: Euro yield curve. Source: Financial Times.

For perspective, it is wise to compare this to how the U.S. nominal yield curve looks as it is much healthier. If economic news from the U.S. continues to be similar to the latest job news, we could expect an interest rate rise in one of the next FED meetings, which should normalize the U.S. yield curve even more.

figure 3 us curve
Figure 3: U.S. yield curve. Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury.

With longer term yield being above inflation, the U.S. debt market looks much healthier and more rational than the EU or Japanese markets.

Economic Reasons and Implications

Many of the World’s most renowned investors have warned that this negative interest rate experiment in Europe and Japan will backfire. Pimco’s Bill Gross stated that a new supernova is being created and BlackRock’s Larry Fink has warned that it will have huge repercussions on the ability investors have to save and plan for the future.

The main goal central banks had in mind by lowering interest rates was to stabilize the economy and increase employment. However, given the length of time yields have been at zero, or even negative, without the accompanying benefits to the economy, one could conclude that the experiment has not worked. In fact, the World Bank has now trimmed global economic growth prospects from 2.9% to 2.4%.

One of the reasons why it may not have worked, is because the whole world is pushing for liquidity by lowering yields, and the positive effect low yields should have on an economy has been diluted and the only thing that has been inflated are asset prices, which isn’t bad if you are fully invested.

Since central banks were unable to create a healthy inflation rate of 2% with what they deemed the appropriate amount of liquidity, they then flooded the global economy with too much liquidity. And instead of having the desired effect of raising prices, it has actually increased competition with more goods and services being offered, which has lowered prices.

We might now start to see some inflation in the U.S. as the unemployment rate is getting close to the natural unemployment rate but Europe is still far from it with unemployment at 10.1%. Until consumers increase spending and create inflation this negative interest environment will persist and we cannot know when it will change, what we can is prepare for when it will change and analyze the current risks.

Implications for Investors

The most painful consequence of negative yields is that savers are penalized and that investors desperate for any kind of yield pay a high risk premium for low yields. A global snap back in interest rates, or a fall in credit quality, would put the financial world under extreme pressure as investments that are usually considered the safest could lose a substantial amount of value depending on how high interest rates rise, since bond prices move inversely to yields. Goldman Sachs estimates that an unexpected 1% increase in U.S. treasury yields would trigger $1 trillion of losses. If you are highly invested in bonds please be aware of the risks you are running if interest rates rise and ask yourself if the low yield is worth the risk.

Inflation would put pressure on interest rates and companies which cannot transfer increased financing costs onto customers would have huge difficulties in refinancing their debt. The current S&P 500 debt pile is the largest in history and companies are taking advantage of the low interest rates in order to borrow as much as they can.

figure 4 net debt
Figure 4: Net debt issuance/reduction. Source: FACTSET.

Investors should take advantage of the situation as most of the corporate debt is used for repurchases that further inflate asset prices but be careful for the moment when the party stops. At some point, the party has to come to an end someday because corporations are not using the fresh capital to invest but instead are only using it mostly for repurchases and dividends, thus not thinking that much about the future.

Conclusion 

As there is no historical precedent to the current situation, all that one can do is make an educated guess as to when it will end. We all know that this situation is artificial and we also know that it has not been that beneficial to the global economy in the last few years.

As the more mature investors reading this will know, the economy works in cycles and we will see this asset inflation end but we cannot know when. When it does turn, it will certainly be an ugly scenario as investors will sell inflated assets in panic, corporations will find it difficult to refinance debt and central banks will not have maneuvering options with interest rates already negative.

But, as central banks continue to hope that more of the same—which is clearly not working—will eventually work, and which according to Albert Einstein is the exact definition of stupidity, let us enjoy the party while it lasts, hope that it will last for a long time, and always stay prepared for an eventual change.

 

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