Last week, we shared with readers a fascinating presentation that Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio made to NY Fed staffers at the 40th Annual Central Banking Seminar held on Wednesday, October 5, 2016. In it, Dalio pointed out that thoughts which dared to question the economic orthodoxy, and which were once relegated to the fringe blogs, have become the norm, pointing out that it is no longer controversial to say that:
- …this isn’t a normal business cycle and we are likely in an environment of abnormally slow growth
- …the current tools of monetary policy will be a lot less effective going forward
- …the risks are asymmetric to the downside
- …investment returns will be very low going forward, and
- …the impatience with economic stagnation, especially among middle and lower income earners, is leading to dangerous populism and nationalism.
He further notes that the debt bubble which was not eliminated during the financial crisis of 2008, has since grown to staggering proportions, and notes that “the biggest issue is that there is only so much one can squeeze out of a debt cycle and most countries are approaching those limits.”
Alas, while the underlying symptoms are clear, that does not make the solution of the problem any easier. Quite the contrary. As Dalio further adds, “when we do our projections we see an intensifying financing squeeze emerging from a combination of slow income growth, low investment returns and an acceleration in liabilities coming due both because of the relatively high levels of debt and because of large pension and health care liabilities. The pension and health care liabilities that are coming due are much larger than the debt liabilities in most countries because of demographics – i.e., due to the baby-boom generation moving from working and paying taxes to getting their retirement and health care benefits.”
Here the Bridgewater head provides a simple explanation for why the system is unsustainable: debt is fundamentally a liability even though it is treated as an asset by those who “own” it. As a result, “holders of debt believe that they are holding an asset that they can sell for money to use to buy things, so they believe that they will have that spending power without having to work. Similarly, retirees expect that they will get the retirement and health care benefits that they were promised without working. So, all of these people expect to get a huge amount of spending power without producing anything. At the same time, workers expect to get spending power that is equal in value to what they are giving. They all can’t be satisfied.”
How does the Fed react to this inconsistency? By a familiar tool: financial repression.
As a result of this confluence of conditions, we are now seeing most central bankers pushing interest rates down to make them extremely unattractive for savers and we are seeing them monetizing debt and buying riskier assets to make debt and other liabilities less burdensome and to stimulate their economies. Rarely do we investors get a market that we know is over-valued and that approaches such clearly defined limits as the bond market now. That is because there is a limit as to how negative bond yields can go. Their expected returns relative to their risks are especially bad.
What does that mean in practical terms? Well, in short: lots of pain for holders of duration: “If interest rates rise just a little bit more than is discounted in the curve it will have a big negative effect on bonds and all asset prices, as they are all very sensitive to the discoun rate used to calculate the present value of their future cash flows. That is because with interest rates having declined, the effective durations of all assets have lengthened, so they are more price-sensitive.”
And the punchline”
… it would only take a 100 basis point rise in Treasury bond yields to trigger the worst price decline in bonds since the 1981 bond market crash. And since those interest rates are embedded in the pricing of all investment assets, that would send them all much lower.
Consider that Ray Dalio’s most stark crash warning to date.
Of course, it is not new to regular readers becuase this is precisely what we warned about back in June, when we showed the massive duration exposure on the market, and explaining “Why The Fed Is Trapped: A 1% Increase In Rates Would Result In Up To $2.4 Trillion Of Losses“
As we showed using Goldman calculations, in 1994, the average yield on the bond index was 5.6%, vs. 2.2% currently. Lower bond coupons means that proportionately more of the bond cashflows now comes from principal, which tends to be distributed towards the end of the bond lifetime.
Here is the math of how much in just bond losses a 1% increase in rates would lead to:
The total face value of all US bonds, including Treasuries, Federal agency debt, mortgages, corporates, municipals and ABS, is $40 trillion (Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association). The Barclays US aggregate is a smaller number, $17 trillion, as the index excludes some categories of debt, such as money markets, with low duration. Using either measure, total debt outstanding has grown by over 60% in real Dollars since 2000.
For conservative purposes, we use the lower debt estimate, and get that when combining a duration estimate of 5.6 years with a total notional exposure of $17trn, and current Dollar price of bonds of $105.6, indicates that, to first order, a 100bp shock to interest rates – the same one that Dalio envisions – would translate into a $1trn market value loss. That is using the more conservative estimate of the bond market. Using the broader, and more accurate, bond market sizing of $40trn, the market value loss estimate would be $2.4 trillion. While the largest number would be stunning, even the smaller $1 trillion loss estimate is massive:
it would amount to over 50% larger than the market value lost in the 1994 bond market selloff in inflation-adjusted terms, and larger than the cumulative credit losses experienced to date in the non-agency residential mortgage backed securities market.
This is what Goldman concludes in early June when delivering its own stark forecast of massive losses should rates spike:
“even if there is not a large net social loss from a rise in rates, the $1 trillion gross loss estimate suggests that some investor entities would likely experience significant distress. In the 1994 bond market decline, for example, losses on a mortgage derivative portfolio were a major factor contributing to the Orange County, California bankruptcy event. All in, the increase in total gross debt exposure, combined with lengthening bond durations and an arguably expensive bond market, suggest that rising yields should be on the short list of scenarios to be monitored by risk managers.”
Now we know that it certainly is on the very short list of scenarios monitored by the world’s biggest hedge fund.
So what, if any, recommendations does Dalio have now that virtually all the “smartest men in the room” admit the Fed is not only trapped, but that a spike in yields would lead to the worst crash in 35 years:
Right now, a number of the riskier assets look attractive in relationship to bonds and cash, but not cheap in relationship to their risks. If this continues, holding non-financial storeholds of wealth like gold could become more attractive than holding long duration fiat currency flows with negative yields (which is what bonds are), especially if currency volatility picks up.
Needless to say, we are eagerly waiting for precisely that inflection point.