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06 March 2015

PRMIA/Bloomberg Event - How low can yields go?

PRMIA and Bloomberg held a joint event at Bloomberg HQ yesterday evening entitled "How low can yields go?". Tom Keene of Bloomberg News proved himself to be a very dry, amusing and competent moderator and the panel he moderated was comprised of Harley S. Bassman of PIMCO (number of humourous jibes at Harley for having caused the financial crisis due to his involved in credit derivatives), James Sweeney, Chief Economist at CS and Henson Orser of Nomura.

Tom asked the panel the obvious question "How low can yields go?". One response from the panel was that almost every market event was clouded in "deflation hysteria" looking at events such as the recent drop in oil prices. Things will change when this hysteria weakens. Another point made was that current policies (QE) are making safe assets unattractive to release cash into the economy, but that negative interest rates are inherently destabilizing. There was an attitude put forward of "we will survive this" and looking back at the Great Depression then folks pulled money from banks whereas that did not happen in 2008/9. There was some talk of how shorting the bond market 14 months in row has been wrong, but that with 3 1/4% out at 10 years along the US yield curve that this shorting has had no effect on macro policy.

Tom asked whether time "theta" as he put it, was the real healer here. The panel responded that the government's policies of 2009 worked, regardless of your opinion of where the same policies might be taking us long term. A period of balance sheet repair has followed during the 7 years after the crisis and that this was "mostly repaired" looking at many measures of debt. Looking forward, the yield curve is priced for a rate hike and the Fed wants one, but this will not occur until we are nearer full employment at 5-6% and not 8-9% levels. Wage inflation is likely to take off nearer full employment, and growth will start to slow at the same time. There are signs that this is already occurring, and that core inflation in the US is not really that low, only say 30bp less than average. 

The panel also discussed the issue that many working on Wall Street had not experienced a tightening economy over the past 10 years so maybe there should be some concerns over how they deal with it through this transition. The panel envisage more FX and rate volatility as this occurs. Against this background, then due to regulation Wall Street had fewer and smaller players to help provide liquidity into this volatile market to come. One of the panelists pointed out issues for equities, with cash flows being discounted at the current (very low) curve whilst returns look weak. One potential scenario build out of this put forward for a rapid increase in inflation over 3-6 months.

Tom asked "How long is history" wanting to establish what timeframe we should be assessing the success of policy. One of the panelists said that baby boomer generation retiring may affect fund flows as they get out of equities and buy bonds and that rates behaviours may have changed for good with markets used to yield curve inversions at around 5/5 1/4% but now moving to 3/3 1/4%. Another panelist mentioned that due to regulation the flow of funds from mortgages and their securitization to sophisticated investors was broken. Again the issue of Wall Street having less capacity due to regulation was mentioned.

On the subject of FX, the panel thought it a very difficult market to forecast. Dollar strength looks set to continue with the possibility of a 85c EUR. The Eurozone may strengthen economically as exports benefit from a weak EUR. Tom asked where investors could capture yield, and Brazil was suggested as a good target given its high rates currently. One of the panelists suggested that the world was taking part in a co-ordinated currency war, but this was not accepted by all. Japan 2015 GDP growth is likely to be good, supported by lower oil prices and experiencing some wage inflation. The Japanese Government cannot buy any more JGBs since the supply is running out, however they think inflation is about to take off there. In summary they thought Abenomics had "worked".

"Stability" and how to recognize it was the next topic from Tom. Firstly the panel thought that whatever is to come in the transition to stability, the world would not unravel. The panel said that stability ex-post was much easier to recognize than ex-ante. One of the panelist put forward a potential scenario in which the Fed could not tighten rates with a very strong dollar, China doing worse/US doing better and therefore everyone wants treasuries. 

Audience Q&A - There were a few audience questions. The first was on demographics - asking the panel about the effects on rates and the economy of birth and retirement rates. The panel thought a key issue was whether the cohort of retirees was being replaced by a similar cohort of workers. The US is balanced in this regard but other countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan are not. In the 1980's, Japan did very well economically and had 13 retirees per 100 workers and now this was 48 per 100. However, even for the US then increased longevity of the retiring population was another key issue to address. 

Another audience question focused on QE/fiat currencies and whether today's governments where printing more money than the economy has been growing. In summary the panel seemed to think of QE as an experiment that had not gone wrong yet, not to say that it might not and not to say how long it might take to go wrong. 

One audience member wondered whether Francis Fukayama's "End of History" now applied to the fixed income and hedge fund industries. The response from the panel was that it is never "different this time" and that greed/ego/hubris had caused problems and would cause problems again. However Wall Street is not dead, and it has the plumbing and machinery to convert granny's savings into funding for an app developer. The last piece of advice from one panel member was to go to the bar and think pleasant thoughts.

So we did.

 

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