James Grant: The Fed Is Now Hostage To Wall Street by Christoph Gisiger, Finanz und Wirtschaft Below is a brief excerpt reposted with permission
James Grant, Wall Street expert and editor of the investment newsletter “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer”, warns of a crash in sovereign debt, is puzzled over the actions of the Swiss National Bank and bets on gold.
From multi-billion bond buying programs to negative interest rates and probably soon helicopter money: Around the globe, central bankers are experimenting with ever more extreme measures to stimulate the sluggish economy. This will end in tears, believes James Grant. The sharp thinking editor of the iconic Wall Street newsletter “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer” is one of the most ardent critics when it comes to super easy monetary policy. Highly proficient in financial history, Mr. Grant warns of today’s reckless hunt for yield and spots one of the biggest risks in government debt. He’s also scratching his head over the massive investments which the Swiss National Bank undertakes in the US stock market.
Jim, for more than three decades Grant’s has been observing interest rates. Is there anything left to be observed with rates this low?
Interest rates may be almost invisible but there is still plenty to observe. I observe that they are shrinking and that the shrinkage is causing a lot of turmoil because people in need of income are in full hot pursuit of what little of yields remains.
What are the consequences of that?
It reminds me of the great Victorian English journalist Walter Bagehot. He once said that John Law can stand anything but he can’t stand 2%, meaning that very low interest rates induced speculation and reckless investing and misallocation of capital. So I think Bagehot’s epigraph is very timely today.
John Law was mainly responsible for the great Mississippi bubble which caused a chaotic economic collapse in France in the early 18th century. How is the story going to end this time?
It will turn out to be very bad for many people. If Swiss insurance and reinsurance executives are reading this right now they might be rolling their eyes and they might be frustrated to hear an American scolding from a distance of 3000 miles about the risk of chasing yield. After all, if you’re in the business of matching long term liabilities with long term assets you have little choice but to wish for a better, more sensible world. But you have to take the world as it is and today’s world is barren of interest income. The fact is, that these are very risk fraught times.
Where do you see the biggest risks?
Sovereign debt is my nomination for the number one overvalued market around the world. You are earning nothing or less than nothing for the privilege of lending your money to a government that has pledged to depreciate the currency that you’re investing in. The central banks of the world are striving to achieve a rate of inflation of 2% or more and you are lending certainly at much less than 2% and in many cases at less than nominal 0%. The experience of losing money is common in investing. But where is the certitude of loss even before your check clears? That’s the situation with sovereign debt right now.
On a worldwide basis, more than a third of sovereign debt is already yielding less than zero percent.
There is not quite a bestseller, but a very substantial book called “The History of Interest Rates“. It was written by Sidney Homer and Richard Sylla. Sidney Homer is no longer with us, but Richard Sylla is alive and well at New York University. So I called him and said: “Richard, I’ve read many pages but not every single page in your book which traces the history of interest rates from 3000 BC to the present. Have you ever come across negative bond yields?” He said no and I thought that would be kind of a major news scoop: For the first time in at least 5000 years we have driven interest rates below the zero marker. I thought that was an exceptional piece of intelligence. But I notice however that nobody seems to have picked up on it.
It’s now already two years ago since the ECB was the first major central bank to introduce negative rates.
There are some other historical settings: In Europe, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, this 500 and plus year old bank in Italy, is struggling and as broke as you can be without being legally broke. Monte dei Paschi has survived for half a millennium and now it is on the ropes. Meanwhile, the Bank of England is doing things today that it has never done in its history which is 300 plus years. So I suggest that these are at least interesting times and in many respects unprecedented ones.
So what’s the true meaning of all this?
In finance, mostly nothing is ever new. Human behavior doesn’t change and money is a very old institution and so are our markets. Of course, techniques evolve, but mostly nothing is really new. However, with respect to interest rates and monetary policy we are truly breaking new ground.
Now central bankers are even talking openly about helicopter money. Will they really go for it?
I already hear the telltale of beating rotor blades in the sky. I also hear the tom-toms of fiscal policy being pounded. There seems to be some kind of a growing consensus that monetary policy has done what it can do and that what me must do now – so say the “wise ones” – is to tax and spend and spend and spend. That seems to be the new big idea in policy. In any case, it is not good for bondholders.
Interestingly, nobody seems to be talking about the growing government debt anymore. Also, budget politics are just a side note in the ongoing presidential elections.
The trouble with this election is that somebody has to win it. I have no use for Donald Trump but I have equally no use for Hillary Clinton. The point is that one of those two is going to win. That is the tragedy! So we at Grant’s regret that one of them is going to win.
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