Bubbles and Hot Potatoes

Of all the delusions that have infected the minds of economists, central bankers, and the investing public in recent years, perhaps none is as short-sighted and pernicious as the idea that aggressively low interest rates are “good” for the economy and the financial markets.

There is, of course, a certain truth to that idea, roughly equivalent to proposing that snorting amphetamine-laced cocaine is “good” for one’s energy, or that walking into a bar and randomly choosing partners while wearing a blindfold is “good” for one’s love life. In each case, however, the validity of the claim comes from subverting the word “good” to mean nothing more than a short-lived burst of very bad choices.

Back in 2003, Alan Greenspan mixed the soap of what would become the housing bubble by holding interest rates to just 1%. Investors responded to the uncomfortably low yields on Treasury bills by looking for alternatives that offered a seemingly safe “pickup” in yield. They found that alternative in mortgage securities. Wall Street was more than happy to satisfy the demand for more “product,” as they called it, by creating more mortgage bonds. But see, creating a mortgage bond requires you to actually make a mortgage loan to someone, which is how we got zero-down, no-doc, interest-only loans. “No credit? No problem!” Well, no problem in the short-term. Over the next few years, that bubble of Fed-induced yield-seeking speculation would reach its peak, and then collapse, producing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In my 2003 piece outlining that developing bubble, I began, “T.S. Eliot once wrote ‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’ It seems that the U.S. financial system is bound and determined to find out… the real question is this: why is anybody willing to hold this low interest rate paper if the borrowers issuing it are so vulnerable to default risk? That’s the secret. The borrowers don’t actually issue it directly. Instead, much of the worst credit risk in the U.S. financial system is actually swapped into instruments that end up being partially backed by the U.S. government. These are held by investors precisely because they piggyback on the good faith and credit of Uncle Sam.”

In the Federal Reserve’s attempt to bring the U.S. out of the crisis of its own making, the Fed has produced conditions that make another collapse inevitable. Unfortunately, the scale of the present bubble is far grander, and the consequences are likely to be more severe. By the completion of this cycle, I continue to expect the S&P 500 to lose roughly two-thirds of the market capitalization it reached at its September 20 peak. Mountains of covenant-lite debt and leveraged loans, this cycle’s version of “sub-prime” mortgages, will go into default. Worse, “covenant-lite” means that lenders have much less protection in the event of defaults, so recovery rates will plunge to levels that investors have never experienced.

After 8 years of Fed-induced yield-seeking speculation, financial valuations have been driven to the most offensive extremes in history, with the most reliable equity valuation measures recently matching or exceeding their 1929 and 2000 peaks. Accordingly, prospective long-term investment returns for stocks and bonds have been driven to strikingly low levels.

At the September peak, we estimated that a conventional portfolio mix invested 60% in the S&P 500, 30% in Treasury bonds, and 10% in Treasury bills was likely to produce total returns averaging just 0.48% annually over the coming 12-year horizon. The only time passive investors faced lower expected 12-year returns was during the 3 weeks immediately surrounding the 1929 market peak. After a recent increase in bond yields and a mild -10% decline in the S&P 500, that estimate increased to just 1.29%. With most pension funds assuming expected future returns on the order of 7% annually, the coming years are likely to include a rather severe pension funding crisis.