Europe Takes the QE Baton
If the wide, wide world of investing doesn’t seem a little strange to you these days, it can only be because you’re not paying attention. If you’re paying attention, strange really isn’t the word you’re probably using in your day-to-day investing conversations; it may be more likeweird or bizarre. It increasingly feels like we’re living in the world dreamed up by the creators of DC Comics back in the 1960s, called Bizarro World. In popular culture “Bizarro World” has come to mean a situation or setting that is weirdly inverted or opposite from expectations.
As my Dad would say, “The whole situation seems about a half-bubble off dead center” (dating myself to a time when people used levels that actually had bubbles in them). But I suppose that now, were he with us, he might use the expression to refer to the little bubbles that are effervescing everywhere. In a Bizarro French version of very bubbly champagne (I can hardly believe I’m reporting this), the yield on French short-term bonds went negative this week. If you bought a short-term French bill, you actually paid for the privilege of holding it. I can almost understand German and Swiss yields being negative, but French?
And then Friday, as if to compound the hilarity, Irish short-term bond yields went negative. Specifically, roughly three years ago Irish two-year bonds yielded 23.5%. Today they yield -0.004%! In non-related un-news from Bizarro World, the Spanish sold 50-year bonds at 4% this week. Neither of these statistics yielded up by Bloomberg makes any sense at all. I mean, I understand how they can technically happen and why some institutions might even want 50-year Spanish bonds. But what rational person would pay for the privilege of owning an Irish bond? And does anyone really think that 4% covers the risk of holding Spanish debt for 50 years? What is the over-under bet spread on the euro’s even existing in Spain in 50 years? Or 10, for that matter?
We might be able to lay the immediate, proximate cause of the bizarreness at the feet of ECB President Mario Draghi, who once again went all in last Monday for his fellow teammates in euroland. He gave them another round of rate cuts and the promise of more monetary easing, thus allowing them to once again dodge the responsibility of managing their own economies. The realist in me scratches my already well-scratched head and wonders exactly what sort of business is going to get all exuberant now that the main European Central Bank lending rate has dropped to 0.05% from an already negligible 0.15%. Wow, that should make a lot of deals look better on paper.
We should note that lowering an already ridiculously low lending rate was not actually Signor Draghi’s goal. This week we’ll look at what is happening across the pond in Europe, where the above-mentioned negative rates are only one ingredient in a big pot of Bizarro soup. And we’ll think about what it means for the US Federal Reserve to be so close to the end of its quantitative easing, even as the ECB takes the baton to add €1 trillion to the world’s liquidity. And meanwhile, Japan just keeps plugging away. (Note: this letter will print longer than usual as there are a significant number of graphs. Word count is actually down, for which some readers may be grateful.)
But first, I’m glad that I can finally announce that my longtime friend Tony Sagami has officially come to work for us at Mauldin Economics. Tony has been writing our Yield Shark advisory since the very beginning, but for contractual reasons we could not publicize his name. I will say more at the end of the letter, but for those of you interested in figuring out how to increase the yield of your investments, Tony could be a godsend.’
The Age of Deleveraging
Extremely low and even negative interest rates, slow growth, unusual moves by monetary and fiscal authorities, and the generally unseemly nature of the economic world actually all have a rational context and a comprehensible explanation. My co-author Jonathan Tepper and I laid out in some detail in our book End Game what the ending of the debt supercycle would look like. We followed up in our book Code Red with a discussion of one of the main side effects, which is a continual currency war (though of course it will not be called a currency war in public). Both books stand up well to the events that have followed them. They are still great handbooks to understand the current environment.
Such deleveraging periods are inherently deflationary and precipitate low rates. Yes, central banks have taken rates to extremes, but the low-rate regime we are in is a natural manifestation of that deleveraging environment. I’ve been doing a little personal research on what I was writing some 15 years ago (just curious), and I came across a prediction from almost exactly 15 years ago in which I boldly and confidently (note sarcasm) projected that the 10-year bond would go below 4% within a few years. That was a little edgy back then, as Ed Yardeni was suggesting it might go below 5% by the end of the following year. That all seems rather quaint right now. The Great Recession would send the 10-year yield below 2%.
Sidebar: The yield curve was also negative at the time, and I was calling for recession the next year. With central banks holding short-term rates at the zero bound, we no longer have traditional yield-curve data to signal a recession. What’s a forecaster to do?
I was not the only one talking about deflation and deleveraging back then. Drs. Gary Shilling and Lacy Hunt (among others) had been writing about them for years. The debt supercycle was also a favorite topic of my friend Martin Barnes (and prior to him Tony Boeckh) at Bank Credit Analyst.
Ever-increasing leverage clearly spurs an economy and growth. That leverage can be sustained indefinitely if it is productive leverage capable of creating the cash flow to pay for itself. Even government leverage, if it is used for productive infrastructure investments, can be self-sustaining. But ever-increasing leverage for consumption has a limit. It’s called a debt supercycle because that limit takes a long time to come about. Typically it takes about 60 or 70 years. Then something has to be done with the debt and leverage. Generally there is a restructuring through a very painful deflationary bursting of the debt bubble – unless governments print money and create an inflationary bubble. Either way, the debt gets dealt with, and generally not in a pleasant manner.
We are living through an age of deleveraging, which began in 2008. Gary Shilling summarized it this week in his monthly letter:
We continue to believe that slow worldwide growth is the result of the global financial deleveraging that followed the massive expansion of debt in the 1980s and 1990s and the 2008 financial crisis that inevitably followed, as detailed in our 2010 book, The Age of Deleveraging: Investment strategies for a decade of slow growth and deflation. We forecast back then that the result in the U.S. would be persistent 2% real GDP growth until the normal decade of deleveraging is completed. Since the process is now six years old, history suggests another four years or so to go.
We’ve also persistently noted that this deleveraging is so powerful that it has largely offset massive fiscal stimuli in the form of tax cuts and rebates as well as huge increases in federal spending that resulted in earlier trillion-dollar deficits. It has also swamped the cuts in major central bank interest rates to essentially zero that were followed by gigantic central bank security purchases and loans that skyrocketed their balance sheets. Without this deleveraging, all the financial and monetary stimuli would surely have pushed real GDP growth well above the robust 1982–2000 3.7% average instead of leaving it at a meager 2.2% since the recovery began in mid-2009.
The problems the developed world faces today are the result of decisions made to accumulate large amounts of debt over the past 60 years. These problems cannot be solved simply by the application of easy-money policies. The solution will require significant reforms, especially labor reforms in Europe and Japan, and a restructuring of government obligations.
Mohammed El-Erian called it the New Normal. But it is not something that happens for just a short period of time and then we go back to normal. Gary Shilling cites research which suggests that such periods typically last 10 years – but that’s if adjustments are allowed to happen. Central banks are fighting the usual adjustment process by providing easy money, which will prolong the period before the adjustments are made and we can indeed return to a “normal” market.
How Bizarre Is It?
We are going to quickly run through a number of charts, as telling the story visually will be better than spilling several times 1000 words (and easier on you). Note that many of these charts display processes unfolding over time. We try to go back prior to the Great Recession in many of these charts so that you can see the process. We are going to focus on Europe, since that is where the really significant anomalies have been occurring.
First, let’s look at what Mario Draghi is faced with. He finds himself in an environment of low inflation, and expectations for inflation going forward are even lower. This chart depicts inflation in the two main European economies, Germany and France.
Note too that inflation expectations for the entire euro area are well below 1% for the next two years – notwithstanding the commitment of the European Central Bank to bring back inflation.
But as I noted at the beginning, ECB policy has already reached the zero bound. In fact the overnight rate is negative, making cash truly trash if it is deposited with the ECB.
With inflation so low and a desperate scramble for yield going on in Europe, rates for 10-year sovereign debt have plummeted. It is not that Italy or Spain or Greece or Ireland or France is that much less risky than it was five years ago.
Note that banks can get deposits for essentially nothing. They can lever those deposits up (30 or 40 times), and the regulators make them reserve no capital against investments made in sovereign debt. Even after their experience with Greek debt, they essentially claim that there is no risk in sovereign debt. If your bank’s profits are being squeezed and it’s hard to find places to put money to work in the business sector, then the only game in town is to buy sovereign debt, which is what banks are doing. Which of course pushes down rates. Low interest rates in Europe are as much a result of regulatory policy as of monetary policy.
Next is a chart of 10-year bond yields. We’ve also included the US, Japan, and Switzerland. Note that Japan and Switzerland are in the 50-basis-point range. (Japan is at 0.52%, and Switzerland is at 0.45%). Italy and Spain now have 10-year bond yields below that of the US.
The following chart is a screenshot of a table from Bloomberg, listing 10-year bond yields around Europe. Note that Greece is at 5.48%. Hold that thought while you look at the table.
This next chart requires a minute or two of analysis, and looking at it in black and white probably won’t work. Essentially, this is the spread of the yields of 10-year bonds of various European countries over German