Testing the zero bound

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By Bill Eigen, fund manager, JPMorgan Funds – Income Opportunity Fund

It is news to no one that central bank action has broken the interest rate market. Rates do not respond to traditional factors like economic growth or inflation fundamentals; instead they react to statements from the US Federal Reserve and the ECB. And with central banks showing no sign of easing off the accelerator, the race to zero rates continues. Under a zero-rate scenario, it has become almost mathematically impossible to make money in traditional fixed income.

Europe, which has become the global epicentre of the hunt for yield, is pushing the forefront of the zero bound, testing fundamental tenents of investing. Six weeks into an 18 month programme of ECB stimulus and the effects are already profound. German 10 year Bunds are yielding just a few hundredths of a percentage point above zero (7.5 bps).

It’s conceivable (even likely) that soon investors will effectively be paying for the privilege of borrowing money from core European governments. And there is no reason to think that we can’t go further down the rabbit hole in Europe.

In the US, the Federal Reserve continues to find reasons to delay the process of returning to rate normalisation, even after seven long years of no rate increases. While they are slowly edging closer, unfortunately we think rates will continue to be range bound for the balance of the year, if we’re being realistic. Our concern is that the longer that the Fed puts off the initial lift-off, the worse the potential impact on bond investors.

As a global illustration of the disruptive consequences of a potential rate move for investors, consider a common global sovereign bond index, where the current average yield is at an all-time historical low of 1% with a duration (or interest rate sensitivity) of about seven years.  If interest rates were simply to normalise from here, even just edging back towards where they were during the heart of the financial crisis, investors long on this index would stand to lose 10% to 20% of their principle, depending on the duration.

Investors cannot afford to be complacent in this environment.  They have to grasp that traditional fixed income can’t do what it was supposed to do anymore. Fixed income was meant to do three things:  provide income, preserve capital and offer diversification benefits compared to other commonly held asset classes like equities.  Clearly when rates are at nearly zero, there’s no provision of income in fixed ‘income.’ Correspondingly, capital preservation is no longer assured when bonds carry such high interest rate and duration sensitivity.  Even the diversification benefit has faded away as asset classes move in lock step thanks to central bank stimulus. 

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