Jim Grant: We’re in an Era of ‘Central Bank Worship’ by Henry Bonner, Sprott Global.
Jim Grant is the publisher and editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, a bi-monthly newsletter that he founded in 1983, around the time when bonds were considered some of the worst investments – when they yielded 13 to 15 percent.
Rick Rule, Chairman of Sprott US Holdings Inc., often quotes Jim Grant’s description of government bonds as ‘return-free risk.’ (Rick sees US Treasuries as the ‘anti-gold’).
Jim Grant took my questions on interest rates and the bond market – including Bill Gross’ recent departure from PIMCO – via phone from his Manhattan office.
Jim Grant, you argue that companies whose share prices are rising should be becoming more efficient – hence driving down the costs of consumer goods and services.
The Fed is succeeding in keeping both stock market prices and consumer goods prices moving higher – which look like contradictory goals. Do you think this situation is sustainable going forward?
Jim Grant: Many years ago, falling prices were a sign of improved efficiency and expanding wealth, and of widening consumer choice. Thanks to the spread of electricity and other such wonders in the final quarter of the 19th century, prices dwindled year by year at a rate of 1.5% to 2% per year. People didn’t call it deflation – they called it progress. Similarly, in the 1920’s there were advances in production techniques. The prices didn’t decline and didn’t rise. They were stable. Looking back on the 20’s from the vantage point of the 30’s, many people wondered why prices had not fallen. They concluded that it was because the central banks were emitting too much credit, and that credit had served to inflate asset values. It had also pushed the world into a very imbalanced credit and monetary situation towards the close of the 20’s.
Fast forward many generations and here we are today with a world-wide labor market linked through digital technology. We are the beneficiaries of Moore’s law. Nearly every day we see new, wonderful, labor-enhancing machinery coming into the workplace – including new software. And yet, prices don’t fall. They tend to rise, albeit by 1% or 2% per year. Central banks seem to want more than that. You do wonder – I wonder – what would be wrong with what Wall Mart calls ‘everyday low and lower prices.’ People seem to rather relish that – certainly when shopping on the weekends. Central banks want no part of it. So, I see that as a contradiction. What central banking policy has done is to inflate consumer prices that, if the laws of supply and demand were properly functioning, would have tended to fall. At the same time, central bank policy has tended to inflate the prices of stocks, bonds, and income-producing real-estate. Why it is that these immense emissions of new credit by the central banks have not been inflationary? Well, it seems to me that they have been inflationary, because prices are rising not falling.
Do you think that the situation will continue going forward – rising consumer prices along with rising stock prices?
Jim Grant: What I don’t know about the future, we don’t have the time to go into. I dare say that stock prices will not continue to rise uninterrupted at the same pace. That’s not a very interesting prediction, but the stock market is certainly a cyclical thing. Stock prices will pull back in the fullness of time, whether it starts 5 minutes, 5 months, or 5 years from now. I think it’s fair to observe that today’s ultra-low interest rates flatter stock market valuations. Stock prices are partly valued based on a discounted flow of dividend income. To the extent that the discount rate you use to value that stream of dividend income, which depends on interest rates, is artificially low, stock prices are artificially high. I think that the burden of proof is on anyone who would assert that we are in a new age of persistently and steadily rising stock prices.
On the subject of bond markets, you’ve said: “does it not seem incongruous to chase low-yielding fixed-income securities denominated in a currency that the central bank is vowing to inflate?” Why do you think that investors go into bonds despite the Fed’s intention to devalue them over time?
Jim Grant: Well, I can’t explain it. I can try to piece together what might be driving people to do that, but, to me, it’s a mystery. One thing to bear in mind is that bond prices have been rising and yields have been falling since fall of 1981. That’s a long time and there’s something in financial markets that we might call ‘muscle memory.’ Long-running trends tend to gather force, just as a rock rolling down a hill tends to pick up speed. There’s something about the persistence and age of this bull market that leads more people to think that it will continue. That said, fixed-income investors are intelligent and reasoning people. That can’t be the entire explanation. I see that in Europe money market interest rates are trending below zero. You have to search long and hard over the globe to find government securities in developed countries yielding more than 2%. In Ireland, some short-term securities are yielding less than 0%. Why would people buy them? I simply don’t know – I can’t fathom it –, but they certainly are, hand over fist.
You’ve also said that Treasury investors may ‘repent at their leisure’ for buying US Securities, and that corporate investors will one day wish they had not invested so heavily in corporate bonds. Do you see a bear market coming imminently for bonds?
Jim Grant: Yes – starting about 2002…
Henry, now, that’s meant to be a laugh line.
I have wholly been way out of step with the bond market for a long time, and everything that I say with regards to the future of interest rates deserves to be written in something like invisible ink. You know, in a work entitled ‘Security Analysis,’ a work about value investing written by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, this approximate phrase appears: “bond selection is a negative art.” Well, what Graham and Dodd meant by that is that, because the buyer of a bond at par can do no better than getting his money back and earning some interest along the way, the prospect for gain is inherently limited. Risk ought to be at the front of the mind of the creditor. There are no 2 or 3-baggers in investment-grade bond investing. You have to be mindful of what can go wrong, and it seems that the world over, thanks to these policies by central banks, bond investors are not looking at risk, or feel they can’t afford to look at risk. Rather, they are grasping at the few straws of yield that remain and I think that posterity will look back at this with wonder.
“Think of it” – I’m now putting words in posterity’s mouth. “Think of it, people were buying as if the supply were limited. They were buying government securities, which yielded practically nothing. They were buying bonds denominated in currencies that the central banks