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The Mechanics of Absurdity

Written by Michael Lebowitz and Jack Scott | Aug 28, 2019

Over the past few decades, the central banks, including the Federal Reserve (Fed), have relied increasingly on interest rates to help modify economic growth. Interest rate management is their tool of choice because it can be effective and because central banks regulate the supply of money, which directly effects the cost to borrow it. Lower interest rates incentivize borrowers to take on debt and consume while dis-incentivizing savings.

Regrettably, a growing consequence of favoring lower than normal interest rates for prolonged periods is that consumers, companies, and nations grow increasingly indebted as a percentage of their respective income. In many cases, consumption is pulled from the future to the present day. Accordingly, less consumption is needed in the future and a larger portion of income and wealth must be devoted to servicing the accumulated debt as opposed to productive ventures which would otherwise generate income to help pay off the debt.

Today, interest rates are at historically low levels around the globe. Interest rates are negative in Japan and throughout much of Europe. In this article, we expound on the themes laid out in Negative is the New Subprime, to discuss the mechanics of negative-yielding debt as well as the current mindset of investors that invest in negative-yielding debt.

Is invest the right word in describing an asset that when held to maturity guarantees a loss of capital?

Negative Yield Mechanics

Negative yields are not only bestowed upon sovereign debt, as investment grade and even some junk-rated debt in Europe now carry negative yields. Even stranger, Market Watch just wrote about a Danish bank offering consumers’ negative interest rate mortgages (LINK).

You might be thinking, “Wow, I can take out a negative interest rate loan, receive payments every month or quarter and then pay back what was lent to me?” That is not how it works, at least not yet. Below are two examples that walk through the lender and borrower cash flows for negative-yielding debt.

Some of the bonds trading at negative yields were issued when yields were positive and therefore have coupon payments. For example, in August of 2018, Germany issued a 30 year bond with a coupon of 1.25%. The price of the bond is currently $143, making the yield to maturity -0.19%. Today, it will cost you $14,300 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Going forward, you will receive coupon payments of $125 a year and ultimately receive $10,000 in 2048. Over the next 29 years you will receive $3,625 in coupon payments but lose $4,300 in principal, hence the current negative yield to maturity.

Bonds issued with a zero coupon with negative yields are similar in concept but the mechanics are slightly different than our positive coupon example from above. Germany issued a ten-year bond which pays no coupon. Currently, the price is 106.76, meaning it will cost an investor $10,676 to buy $10,000 face value of the bond. Over the next ten years the investor will receive no coupon payments, and at the end of the term they will receive $10,000, resulting in a $676 loss. The lower the negative yield to maturity, the higher premium to par and the greater loss of principal at maturity.

We suspect that example two, the zero-coupon bond issued at a price above par, will be the issuance model going forward for negative yielding bonds.

Why?

At this point, after reviewing the cash flows on the German bonds, you are probably asking why an investor would make an investment in which they are almost guaranteed to lose money. There are two predominant reasons worth exploring.

Safety: Investors that store physical gold in a gold vault pay a fee for safe storage. Individuals with expensive jewelry or other keepsakes pay banks a fee to use their vaults. Custodians, such as Fidelity or Schwab, are paid fees for the safekeeping of our stocks and bonds.

Storing money, as a deposit in a bank, is a little different from the prior examples. While banks are a safer place to store money than a personal vault, mattress, or wallet, the fact is that deposits are loans to the bank. Banks traditionally pay depositors an interest rate so that they have funds they can lend to borrowers at higher rates than the rate incurred on the deposit.

With rates negative in Europe and Japan, their respective central banks have essentially made the storing of deposits with banks akin to the storage of gold, jewelry, and stocks – they are subject to a safe storage fee.  Unfortunately, many people and corporations have no choice but to store their money in negative-yielding instruments and must lend money to a bank and pay a “storage fee.”  

On a real return basis, in other words adjusted for inflation, whether an investor comes out ahead by lending in a negative interest rate environment, depends on changes to the cost of living during that time frame. Negative yielding bonds emphatically signal that Germany will be in a deflationary state over the next ten years. With global central bankers taking every possible step, legal and otherwise, to avoid deflation and generate inflation, betting on deflation via negative yielding instruments seems like a poor choice for investors.

Greater Fool Theory: Buying a zero-coupon bond for 101 today with the promise of receiving 100 is a bad investment. Period. Buying the same bond for 101 today and selling it for 102 tomorrow is a great investment. As yields continue to fall further into negative territory, the prices of bonds rise. While the buyer of a negative-yielding bond may not receive a coupon, they can still profit, and sometimes appreciably as yields decline.

This type of trade mindset falls under the greater fool theory. Per Wikipedia:

“In finance and economics, the greater fool theory states that the price of an object is determined not by its intrinsic value, but rather by irrational beliefs and expectations of market participants. A price can be justified by a rational buyer under the belief that another party is willing to pay an even higher price. In other words, one may pay a price that seems “foolishly” high because one may rationally have the expectation that the item can be resold to a “greater fool” later.”

More succinctly, someone buying a bond that guarantees a loss can profit if they can find someone even more willing to lose money.

Scenario Analysis

Let’s now do a little scenario analysis to understand the value proposition of holding a negative-yielding bond.

For all three examples we use a one year bond to keep the math simple. The hypothetical bond details are as follows:

  • Issue Date: 9/1/2019
  • Maturity Date: 9/1/2020
  • Coupon = 0%
  • Yield at Issuance: -1.0%
  • Price at Issuance: 101.00

Greater fool scenario: In this scenario, the bondholder buys the new issue bond at 101 and sells it a week later at 101.50. In this case, the investor makes a .495% return or almost 29% annualized.

Normalization: This next scenario assumes that yields return to somewhat normal levels and the holder sells the bond in six months.If the yield returns to zero in six months, the price of the bond would fall to 100. In this case, our investor, having paid 101.00, will lose 1% over the six month period or 2% annualized.

Hold to maturity: If the bond is held to maturity, the bondholder will be redeemed at par losing 1% as they are paid $100 at maturity on a bond they purchased for $101.

Summary

Writing and thinking about the absurdity of negative yields is taxing and unnatural. It forces us to contemplate basic financial concepts in ways that defy common sense and rational thought. This is not a pedantic white paper discussing hypothetical central bank magic tricks and sleight of hand; this is about something occurring in real-time.

Excessive monetary policy has been the crutch of growth for decades spurred by an intense desire to avoid and minimize otherwise healthy and routine economic corrections. It was fueled by the cult of personality which took over in the 1990s when Alan Greenspan was labeled “The Maestro”. He, Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers were christened “The Committee to Save the World” by Time magazine in February 1999.  Greenspan was then the subject of a biography by famed Watergate journalist Bob Woodward infamously titled Maestro in 2000.

Under Greenspan and then Bernanke, Yellen and now Powell, rational monetary policy and acknowledgement of naturally occurring business cycles has taken a back seat to avoidance of these economic cycles at all cost. As a result, central bankers around the world are trying justify the inane logic of negative rates.


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Michael Lebowitz     Jack Scott

Michael Lebowitz, CFA / Jack Scott CFA

2019/08/28
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