Ever since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, central banks around the world have been using lower interest rates and Quantitative Easing (QE) to combat to slow growth and recession fears. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, all major central banks cut their funding interest rate to nearly zero.
The QE policy led to the longest US economic expansion in history. As the US economy improved, the Federal Reserve started hiking rates in late 2015 and continued hiking until December of 2018. The Fen fund rate reached 2.4% in the early months of 2019. In the meantime, the European and Japan Central Banks hovered their interest rates near zero. In 2016, for the first time, we registered negative interest rates in Europe and Japan.
The trade wars
Escalating fears for slowing global growth and trade war threats had forced the Fed to announce its first rate cut since the financial crisis. While widely expected, the rate cut triggered a chain of events. First, President Trump imposed an additional 10% import tax on $300 billion of Chinese good. In return, the Chinese central bank lowered the target exchange rate between US dollars and yuan to 7.0039, the lowest level since April 2008. Losing confidence for a quick trade resolution the equity markets sold off by 3%. The 10-year Treasury fell to 1.7%, one of the lowest levels since the financial crisis.
Negative interest rates
Fearing that the intensifying trade war between the US and China could adversely impact the global economy, many Central banks around the world cut their funding rates to zero or even negative levels. Most recently the Reserve Bank of New Zealand lowered its rate from 1.5% to 1%. Furthermore, the New Zealand Governor said, “It’s easily within the realms of possibility that we might have to use negative interest rates,”
In Germany, the 30-year government bond turned negative for the first time last week. In Japan, the 10-year government bond yields -0.2%.
As we stand today, there is $15 trillion in government bonds that offer negative interest rates, according to Deutsche Bank. In short, European investors are paying to own EU government bonds.
In addition, there are 14 European below investment grade bond issuers trading at negatives rates. Conventionally, the junk bonds are issued by risky borrowers with weaker balance sheets that may struggle to pay back their loans. The typical junk-bond offers a higher income to compensate investors for taking the higher risk of not getting paid at all.
So why negative interest rates are bad for your portfolio
Traditionally, retired and conservative investors have used government bonds as a safe-haven investment. Historically, US treasuries have had a negative correlation with stocks. When the equity markets are volatile, many investors move to US government bonds to wait out the storm. Therefore, many portfolio managers around the world use government bonds as a diversification to lower the risk of your investment portfolio.
So, let’s imagine a conservative investor whose portfolio is invested in about 40% in Equities and 60% in Fixed Income. This person has a low-risk tolerance and would like to use some the extra income to supplement her social security benefits and pension. With ultra-low or negative interest rates, 60% of the portfolio is practically earning nothing and potentially losing money. Let’s break it down.
Lending free money
Investors in negative-yielding bonds are effectively giving the government free money and receiving nothing in return. With $15 trillion worth of negative-yielding bonds, many institutional investors might be willing to take the “deal” since they have legal restrictions on a target amount of fixed income instruments they must own.
No risk-reward premium
The interest rate is the risk-reward premium that the lender is willing to take to provide a loan to a borrower. The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate. Simple. If the risk-reward relationship is broken, many creditors will choose not to lend any money and have the risk of going out of business. Why would a bank give you a negative interest mortgage on your home?
Can’t supplement income
Going back to our imaginary investor with 60% in negative-yielding bonds. This portfolio will not be able to provide additional income that she will need to supplement their pension or social security benefits. What if our investors could not rely on guaranteed benefits, and her portfolio was the sole generator of income? In that case, she will have to spend down the portfolio over time. She would have to adjust her lifestyle and lower her cost so she can stretch the portfolio as long as she could.
Need to take more risk to generate higher income
What if our investor wants to protect her principal? To generate higher income, our conservative investor will ultimately have to consider higher-risk investments that offer a higher positive yield. She will have to be willing to take more risk to receive a higher income from her portfolio.
Subject to inflation risk
The inflation risk is the risk of lower purchasing power of your money due to rising prices. In a simple example, if you own $100 today and the annual inflation is 2%, the real value of your money will be $98 in a year. You are essentially losing money.
With the US inflation rate at around 1.6% as of June of 2019 and Eurozone inflation rate hovering about 1.2%, there is a real risk that the ultra-low and negative rates will reduce the real value of your investments. Investments in negative-yielding bonds will end up with lower purchasing power over time
Subject to interest rate risk
In the fixed-income world, rising interest rates lead to a lower value of your bonds. The reason is that older bonds will have to sell at a lower price to match the yield of the newly issued bonds with a higher interest. Just about a year ago when the Fed was hiking rates by 0.25% every quarter, fixed income investors were rightly worried that their bond holdings would lose value. Many bonds funds ended up in the negative in 2018. Even with lower or negative interests, this risk is looming out there.
Promote frivolous spending and cheap debt
It’s not a secret that lower interest rates allow more individuals, corporations, and governments alike to borrow cheap credit. While everybody’s situation is unique, cheap credit often leads to frivolous and irresponsible spending. With US consumer debt reaching $13.51 trillion, total US corporate debt at $15.5 trillion, and Federal debt pushing above $22 trillion, the last thing we need is banks and politicians writing blank checks.
Create asset bubbles
Cheap credit leads to asset bubbles. Artificially low interests allow phantom companies with negative earnings and weak balance sheet to borrow cheap credit and stay afloat.
The financial crisis of 2008 – 2009 was caused by lower interest rates, which increased the value of US real estate. Many borrowers who otherwise couldn’t afford a mortgage took on cheap loans to buy properties around the country. This led to a real estate bubble which burst soon after the Fed started hiking the interest rates.
One bright spot
The lower interest rate will allow millions of Americans to refinance their mortgage, student debt, or personal loan. If you have borrowed money in the last three year, you might be eligible for refinancing. Be diligent, talk to your banker, and assess all options before taking the next step.
If you need help with your investment portfolio or have questions about generating income from your investments, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-448-9880.
You can also visit my Insights page, where you can find helpful articles and resources on how to make better financial and investment decisions.
About the author:
Stoyan Panayotov, CFA, MBA is a fee-only financial advisor in Walnut Creek, CA, serving clients in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally. Babylon Wealth Management specializes in financial planning, retirement planning, and investment management for growing families and successful business owners.