Why So Negative?

Bonds are sliding toward negative territory across the developed world.  Among the largest industrialized economies, only the United States is offering over 2% yields on 30-year bonds. And it’s not just the global economic pillars pushing rates down, but even in places like Poland that stretch the definition of “developed” market. Or Italy, which push the boundaries of concepts like “balanced budgets.” And even in Greece, which stretches the definition of… pretty much damn near everything. 

What gives? 

First, the technical answer. 

Part of the shift toward negative territory is quantitative easing (QE). QE is, in essence, the expansion of monetary supply above and beyond what the economy says it needs, and then using the newly “printed” currency to purchase various bonds. This artificially drives down borrowing costs of all kinds and inflates financial markets. The idea behind it is that cheaper borrowing costs and an inflated finance market will boost business and consumer confidence and from that, spending — thereby boosting demand in the real economy. 

Between the American, European and Japanese programs, the equivalent of some $15 trillion has been dumped onto markets through QE since the 2007 financial crisis. One reason for the dollar’s strength under Trump is that the United States’ QE program largely came to an end several years ago and the US has reverted to using more traditional monetary tools. In contrast, Europe has been at near-zero interest rates for a decade (and Japan for twice as long), leaving QE or things like it as their only means of using monetary policy to stimulate economic activity. The Eurozone, after a brief hiatus, just restarted QE again a few weeks ago. Japan never really stopped. 

It all adds up to a lot of money chasing limited investment opportunities. That boosts stock and property markets, while the surge into bonds pushes yields negative. 

Second, we have the traditional answer. 

There is a whiff of instability surrounding everything. Germany is undoubtedly in recession and will drag much of the Eurozone down with it. Japan hasn’t seen reliable, sustained economic growth since the 1980s. The American-Chinese trade war has collapsed global confidence in the Chinese economy while the HK protests have collapsed Beijing’s soft power. Meanwhile, it seems that nearly every country in the Middle East is facing some degree of crisis. Even if you’re an aficionado of my brand of Kool-Aid and believe that the US is largely resistant to global upheaval, “resistant” is not synonymous with “immune.” While I still do not see an American recession on the horizon, the American economy has most certainly slowed. 

Recessions — even fears of recessions — have consequences for capital. Spooked investors tend to push money into assets backed by either long-term income streams, government guarantees, or both. Fewer stocks, more bonds. High bond demand pushes yields down towards, to, and through zero. 

It isn’t so much that either answer is wrong. In fact, they are dead on. But they are not the whole picture. There’s something else going on. Something much bigger than QE and much more structural than the normal ebb and flow of economic cycles. 

It’s demography. 

People act differently depending on their age. There’s aren’t a lot of retirees at spin class, nor do college students frequent buffets that specialize in creamed vegetable products. In a “normal” economy there’s a set balance of roughly four children to three young adults to two mature adults to one revered elder. So long as that proportion holds the economic system has some somewhat straightforward characteristics: young workers spend and borrow, mature workers invest, while retirees shift their financial holdings into decidedly less interesting and volatile holdings. Fewer stocks — more t-bills and cash. 

The problem, if “problem” is the correct word, is that the onset of the Second Industrial Revolution roughly 140 years ago both pushed people off of the farm and into urban environments while vastly, dramatically increasing lifespans. As the decades rolled by our definition of “normal” has shifted. Families became smaller and smaller until most of the developed world slipped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. Among the developing world the process started latter, but the downward shift in fertility has been two and three times as fast. The partial exception? The United States. Its wealth of arable land has made it an industrialized country that urbanized slowly. The result? China’s population is already older on average than America’s, while Indonesia and Brazil’s will surpass America’s average ages in about a quarter-century.

The problem (and this time “problem” is certainly the correct word) is that the demographic shift has altered the structure of capital. From roughly 1970 to 2010 the decline in birth rates steadily increased the proportion of mature workers in the population relative to everyone else. It is this block that saves the most both in relative terms and in aggregate. Those savings are the bulk of the world’s working capital. Left unchecked, the growth of the mature worker cohort will eventually oversupply the world with capital.

Well, “eventually” is here. Right now, the population of mature workers as a proportion of global population is at its peak. As this cohort inexorably edges toward retirement, they are shifting their portfolios into less risky assets. Less venture capital, more bonds. The veritable tsunami of capital into the bond space has pushed the safest of those bonds — government debt — firmly into the negative.

Don’t get used to it.

The biggest thing that separates mature works from retirees is time, and in 2022 the majority of the world’s Baby Boomer cadre will have aged into mass retirement. Denied much in the realm of fresh income, the incoming tsunami of government-bond-capital won’t so much recede as evaporate.

Without those inflows, capital costs will — must — rise.

That’s the best-case scenario. It assumes no disruptions. No breaks in global continuity. A rapid climbdown from the trade war. That Italy doesn’t implode. That the Eurozone holds together. That the Brexit debacle calms down. That the Japanese economy can manage its aging and shrinking worker pool via automation and robotics. That the Chinese political center holds. That the broad swathe of the developing world can somehow double their standards of living in under a decade without sacrificing family size. That there’s no shock to energy markets. That the economic contortions of mass aging somehow magically avoid touching banking and finance. That the Americans elect a mild-mannered accountant to be their next president.

Anything that injures either globalization in general or employment and wealth levels specifically immediately imposes burdens, both in terms of raising financing costs directly and preventing capital created in one region from pouring into another. Fragmenting global capital markets will, all by itself, turn regions that have recently become used to ultracheap capital (sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, and India come to mind) once again into capital deserts.

That’s still a pretty good scenario.

It assumes the global system while beaten and bloodied ultimately holds. Historically speaking, the downturns an instability we’ve experienced to date — and this includes the Great Recession — are pretty minor stuff. The global Order is what has enabled many countries to exist in the first place, and if you cannot exist you cannot issue bonds. A heartily inconvenient fact of economic history is that before the Order (that is, 1946), it was pretty common for markets to not simply fail but go to zero.

The first time that happens the financial markets will come face-to-face with a level of risk and risk pricing that no one alive has any expertise in managing.

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