For now I would like to continue down the route of previous months’ Investment Outlooks and discuss the immediate threat to investment portfolios represented by low policy rates (fed funds in the U.S.) and the increasing negative real yields that they engender as inflation accelerates. I spoke last month to the reality of investors being “skunked” and having their pockets picked simply by receiving yields less than inflation, and suggested that as a major reason why the PIMCO ship was carrying a limited supply of Treasuries on board. Although we have warned for several years of the deteriorating creditworthiness of America’s AAA rating, our de minimis Treasury positions had less to do with much more immediate issues than America’s balance sheet prospects. We are highly sensitive to the pocket-picking policies that governments in general deploy to right the ship.
Well, ahoy matey, as quick as you can shout “thar she blows,” an academic working paper by Carmen Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia affirmed the same thing but in much more grounded, well-ballasted research. The paper, titled “The Liquidation of Government Debt,” contains a historical analysis of how governments attempt to get out from under the crushing burden of a debt crisis. For developed countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, the period beginning in the mid-1940s (when depression and WWII sovereign debt loads were oppressive) was used as a starting point for pocket picking, “skunking,” or what they term “financial repression.” While the ancient Romans used to shave metal coins in an attempt to monetize existing debts, our evolving financial system has used more sophisticated techniques. With inflation accelerating, due to WWII and post-war demands on commodities, the Treasury capped long-term bond yields at 2½% and in so doing ensured that its debt/GDP ratio would be reduced. If savers received an average 2% on their Treasuries while the nominally based economy was advancing at 5% or more annualized growth rates, then debt to GDP could be lowered from its peak level of 116% to 112%, to 109%…etc. every 12 months. In fact, the authors found that “for the United States and the United Kingdom, the annual liquidation of debt via negative real interest rates amounted on average to 3 or 4% percent of GDP a year…which quickly accumulated (without compounding) to a 30 to 40% of GDP debt reduction in the course of a decade.” Even after interest rate “caps” were removed in 1951 via the Fed-Treasury Accord, extremely low/negative real interest rate policies continued until the Volcker revolution in 1979. By that time, U.S. (and U.K.) debt levels had been normalized, primarily at the expense of savers who had been “repressed” (and depressed!) for over three decades. At that historical turning point, government bonds were labeled “certificates of confiscation.” Not only had savers received Treasury bill rates that were negative for over 25% of the nearly four decades, but they were holding long-term AAA rated bonds trading at 30 to 40 cents on the dollar.
The point of the Reinhart paper was not to state the obvious – that inflation is bad for bonds. Their financial repressionary thesis points out that bond prices don’t necessarily have to go down for savers to get skunked during a process of “debt liquidation.” The argument over whether the end of QEII on June 30 will result in higher yields and lower Treasury bond prices is, in a sense, a secondary one. Even if 10-year Treasuries stay where they are at 3.30%, and fed funds close to 0%, savers and financial intermediaries are being shortchanged by both of these yields and everything in between.
Related paper: "The Liquidation of Government Debt"