Defence in the new market

The global transition to a deleveraging, low-interest environment means beating the market is like trying to win a Super Bowl in the fourth quarter.


They say defence wins Super Bowls, but the Mannings, Bradys and Montanas of gridiron history are testaments to the opposite. Putting points on the board, especially in the last two minutes, has won more games than goal line stands ever have, even if the scoring has been done by the field goal kickers, the names of whom have been confined to the dustbins of football history as opposed to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Canton, however, has an approximately equal number of defensive in addition to offensively positioned inductees, so there must be a universally acknowledged role for both sides of the scrimmage line. What fan can forget Mean Joe Greene, Deion Sanders or Dick Butkus? The old, now politically incorrect showtune laments that "you gotta be a football hero, to fall in love with a beautiful girl,” but football and any of life’s heroes can play on either side of the line, it seems.

My point about pigskin offence and defence is the perfect metaphor for the world of investing as well. Offensively minded risk takers in the markets have historically been the ones who have dominated the headlines and won the hearts of that beautiful gal (or handsome guy). Aside from the rare examples of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, however, the secret to getting rich since the early 1980s has been to borrow someone else’s money, throw some Hail Mary passes and spike the ball in the end zone as if you had some particular genius that deserved monetary rewards 210 times more than a doctor, lawyer or an Indian Chief. Nah, I take that back about the Indian Chief. The Chiefs, at least, have done pretty well with casinos these past few decades.

Still, the primary way to coin money over the past 30 years has been to use money to make money. Although the price of it started in 1981 at a rather exorbitantly high yield of 15 per cent for long-term Treasuries, 20 per cent for the prime, and real interest rates at an almost unbelievable 7-8 per cent, the gradual decline of yields over the past three decades has allowed price-to-earnings ratios, real estate prices and bond fund NAVs to expand on a seemingly endless virtuous timeline. Books such as "Stocks for the Long Run” or articles such as "Dow 36,000” captured the public’s imagination much like a Montana to Jerry Rice pass that always seemed to clinch a 49ers victory.

Yet an instant replay of these past few decades would have shown that accelerating asset prices weren’t due to any particular wisdom on the part of academia or the investment community but an offensively minded Federal Reserve and their global counterparts who were printing money, lowering yields and bringing forward a false sense of monetary wealth that was dependent on perpetual motion. "Rinse, lather, repeat – Rinse, lather, repeat” was in effect the singular mantra of central bankers ever since the departure of Paul Volcker, but there was no sense that the shampoo bottle filled with money would ever run dry.

Well, it has. Interest rates have a mathematical bottom and when they get there, the washing of the financial market’s hair produces a lot less lather when it’s wet, and a lot less body after the blow dry. At the zero bound, not only are yields rendered impotent to elevate price-to-earnings ratios and lower real estate cap rates, but they begin to poison the financial well. Low yields, instead of fostering capital gains for investors via the magic of present value discounting and lower credit spreads, begin to reduce household incomes, lower corporate profit margins and wreak havoc on historical business models connected to banking, money market funds and the pension industry. The offensively oriented investment world that we have grown so used to over the past three decades is being stonewalled by a zero bound goal line stand. Investment defence is coming of age.
This transition is not commonly observed, although it is relatively easy to prove statistically and even commonsensically. Take for instance the rather quizzical notion that lower yields must produce an equal number of winners and losers since there is a borrower for every lender and the net/net therefore should have no effect on the real economy or its financial markets. Chart 1 shows that since 1981, which marks the beginning of the secular decline of interest rates, personal interest income has rather gradually (and now somewhat suddenly) shrunk relative to household debt service payments.


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