In his latest weekly note, bearish investor John Hussman sounds the alarm about bubble mania all over again.
He writes that the exact behaviour that caused the housing bubble is happening again. Investors are using cheap money to buy anything with yield, regardless of risk.
We increasingly see carry being confused with expected return. Carry is the difference between the annual yield of a security and money market interest rates. For example, in a world where short-term interest rates are zero, Wall Street acts as if a 2% dividend yield on equities, or a 5% junk bond yield is enough to make these securities appropriate even for investors with short horizons, not factoring in any compensation for risk or likely capital losses.
This is the same thinking that contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent collapse. Banks, hedge funds, and other financial players borrowed massively to accumulate subprime mortgage-backed securities, attempting to “leverage the spread” between the higher yielding and increasingly risky mortgage debt and the lower yield that they paid to depositors and other funding sources. We shudder at how much risk is being delivered — knowingly or not — to investors who plan to retire even a year from now. Barron’s published an article on target-term funds last month with this gem (italics mine): “JPMorgan’s 2015 target-term fund has a 42% equity allocation, below that of its peers. Its fund holds emerging-market equity and debt, junk bonds, and commodities.”
On the subject of junk debt, in the first two quarters of 2014, European high yield bond issuance outstripped U.S. issuance for the first time in history, with 77% of the total represented by Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. This issuance has been enabled by the “reach for yield” provoked by zero interest rate policy. The discomfort of investors with zero interest rates allows weak borrowers — in the words of the Financial Times — “to harness strong investor demand.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that pension funds, squeezed for sources of safe return, have been abandoning their investment grade policies to invest in higher yielding junk bonds. Rather than thinking in terms of valuation and risk, they are focused on the carry they hope to earn because the default environment seems “benign” at the moment. This is just the housing bubble replicated in a different class of securities. It will end badly.
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