When investment assets are in strong demand from investors, their price goes up relative to the cash flow (eg dividends, interest or rent) they provide pushing their yield down. This is evident in recent times in response to the “search for yield” with yields falling across the board as the next chart shows.
Source: Bloomberg, REIA, RBA, AMP Capital
But everything goes in cycles. So has the “search for yield” gone too far? Will the US Federal Reserve’s shift to start reducing its bond holdings cause a reversal?
Drivers of the search for yield
- First, low interest rates and bond yields and the flow on to bank deposit rates due to low inflation and sub-par growth have encouraged investors to search for higher yielding investments. Central banks buying up bonds and displacing investors into other assets have accentuated this.
- Second, reduced fear of economic meltdown (as the GFC and subsequently the Eurozone public debt crisis subsided) has helped investors feel comfortable in taking on the greater risk that this entails.
- Finally, aging populations in developed countries is seeing baby boomers move into pre-retirement and retirement, driving a demand for less volatile investments paying income. Normally, this demand would go to bonds and bank deposits but as their yields are so low some of this demand has gone into other yield paying investments.
Demand for yield from aging populations has further to go as populations age. For example, in Australia the share of the population aged 65 and over is projected to rise from 15% now to 22% by 2061. However, the second driver is cyclical and will reverse next time there is a sustained bout of risk aversion – just as it did in the GFC.
The first driver is a mix of structural and cyclical influences, though, and it’s probably been the main driver of the search for yield. Bond yields and interest rates have been trending down for 30 years or so and this is structural reflecting a downtrend in inflation, which resulted in a long-term super cycle bull market in bonds. But falls this decade also contain a big cyclical element reflecting the sub-par global growth and deflation seen after the GFC. This accentuated the super cycle bull market in bonds and put the search for yield on steroids. This is where the greatest risk of a reversal in the search for yield trade lies.
The logic of falling yields
But are we getting close to a reversal?
- First, global growth is looking stronger as evident in strong business conditions indicators across most countries. Global growth is improving and becoming more synchronised globally. Nearly 75% of the 45 countries tracked by the OECD are seeing accelerating growth, the highest it’s been since the initial bounce out of the GFC in 2010.
- Part of the reason for this is that the “muscle memory” from the GFC, which commenced a decade ago, is fading and this is contributing to stronger confidence.
- The risk of deflation is receding and giving way to the risk of a rise in inflation as capital and labour utilisation is on the rise globally & productivity growth is poor, reflecting: low levels of investment; increasing levels of populist regulation in some countries; and as older workers retire. While the impact of technological innovation (the Amazon effect, artificial intelligence) will keep this gradual there will still be a cycle in inflation and the risks are gradually pointing up.
- Reflecting this, central banks are gradually retreating from ultra easy policy. The Fed is the most advanced here as the US economic recovery is further advanced. As a result, the Fed is moving towards allowing its holding of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities to start declining. This will be achieved by the Fed not rolling over (ie not reinvesting) the bonds on its books as they mature so it won’t be as dramatic as actually selling bonds. But its holding of bonds will nevertheless decline and it will be sucking cash out of the US economy. In other words, it will be undertaking “quantitative tightening” to reverse the “quantitative easing” of a few years ago. This is good news and reflects the strength of the US economy much as its commencement of rate hikes did in 2015. Nevertheless, combined with continuing gradual Fed rate hikes, it will likely see a resumption of the upwards pressure on bond yields acting as a gradual dampener on the search for yield.
The upswing in bond yields is likely to be gradual – with periodic spurts higher then fall backs like over the last year – as the Fed will likely be gradual, other central banks including the Reserve Bank of Australia are well behind the Fed in being able to tighten and yield focussed demand from aging populations will act as a constraint. But the trend in bond yields is likely to be up unless there is an unexpected relapse in global growth.
What does it all mean for investors?
There are several implications for investors: expect lower returns from government bonds as yields gradually rise; the search for yield likely has further to go in relation to commercial property and infrastructure but it is likely to wane as bond yields rise; share markets are now more dependent on earnings growth for future gains (and the signs are positive) but cyclical sectors geared to higher earnings will likely be the outperformers and yield plays may be underperformers. That the Fed is moving to start reversing its post-GFC quantitative easing (money printing) is another sign the global economy is getting back to normal. This is good for investors.
Source: AMP Capital, Shane Oliver – Head of Investment Strategy and Chief Economist