US stocks are in an historic uptrend; not for 40 years have there been so few countertrend down days. That’s what zero-bound interest rates can do for you! Never before have financial markets had so much wind at their backs; it’s enough to blow their shirts off.
In a normal world, savers have the choice of staying in cash or quasi-cash and receiving a fair rate of interest. No more. The interest they receive on a 10-year Treasury note is barely over 2.5%. But the real rate of consumer price inflation — according to the most exhaustive survey, done by the MIT, the Billion Prices Project — is 3.91%.
What kind of world is it where an honest householder loses nearly 1.5% a year on his savings? It is an odd, rigged-up and dangerously windy one.
The Wall Street Journal reports that investors are stretching out their sails to get higher yields. As a result, bond prices have gone up, reducing yields on bonds rated CCC — below investment grade — to the lowest levels ever recorded:
‘Large investors are rushing into the riskiest corporate bonds, frustrated by low interest rates on safer investments and convinced that even companies with shaky finances are in little danger of default. That buying is driving up prices on those bonds and pushing down their yields, which this month fell to 8.187% on a closely watched Bank of America Merrill Lynch index – the lowest level on record. Yields fall when prices rise.
‘Demand for those and other bonds rated below investment grade — so-called junk bonds — is helping fuel corporate merger-and-acquisition activity. The low-rate environment, says Ford O’Neil, manager of the $14.5 billion Fidelity Total Bond fund, "is forcing folks into riskier strategies in which they feel they will be more richly compensated.’
The Fed’s low rates lure investors to do reckless things. But why worry? If the seas get too rough, investors tell themselves, the Fed will send a helicopter loaded with money.
Yes, dear reader, here you see the difference between a properly functioning economy and one that has been tricked up by central banks and politicians. In a normal economy, businesses borrow money when they need it. And lenders lend money when they think they can make a buck on it. Otherwise, they stay in cash…or equities.
Money lenders look for solid borrowers with good business plans. And they demand a rate of interest to protect themselves from risk. Lenders know that even the best plans fail from time to time…and that a failure will cost them their hard-earned savings.
But in today’s economy even weak borrowers are able to get cheap financing.
And why not?
No one ever earned it or saved it. If it is lost, who gives a damn? Who takes the loss when the money came out of thin air in the first place? And who takes a loss when the Fed keeps a watchful eye over the system, like a nervous new parent with a baby monitor?
In the crisis of 2008, all eyes turned to Washington. There the sage authorities knew just what to do. And so it was that the TARP was born in the heat of crisis, the fruit of an unfortunate union between cupidity and panic.
TARP was a bailout scheme. It offered $700 billion in direct giveaways… and an incredible $23 trillion in guarantees and other credit inducements. That kind of money is bound to have some unintended consequences. We see them today in the aforementioned junk-bond market… and in the banks’ assets. A study by professors Ran Duchin and Denis Sosyura published in the Journal of Financial Economics tells us the banks are bolder now:
‘This paper has investigated the effect of government assistance on bank risk taking. While we do not find a significant effect of government assistance on the aggregate credit supply, our results suggest a considerable effect on the risk of originated loans.
‘After being approved for federal funds […] participants issue riskier loans and increase capital allocations to riskier, higher-yield securities, as compared to banks that were denied federal funds. [T]he net effect is a significant increase in systemic risk and the probability of distress at approved banks. Overall, our evidence is broadly consistent with the theories that predict an increase in risk taking incentives as a result of government protection.’
In a properly working economy, borrowers fail one by one. But in a jived-up financial system investors big and small unfurl their sails and put on speed. This is practically an affront to King Neptune and all the gods. Sailors must show some respect for the weather…and the dark, stormy waves. Otherwise, the seas rise up…and the little barks go down all together.
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