The Present Risks Of Holding Government Bonds

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For a long time it has often been assumed that government bonds of developed countries are a safe investment. Whenever there has been a stock market correction, one always benefited by holding government bonds. Especially if they had a decent yield and it was above the rate of inflation. The difference now is that before the current market crash towards the end of February, interest rates in most developed countries were already at very low levels. Yet as the crash unfolded both the Bank of England (BoE) and the Federal Reserve (Fed) reduced interest rates even more to stimulate the economy. As I write this article, the current BoE rate is just 0.1% and the Fed rate is at 0%. Since 2016, the European Central Bank (ECB) interest rate has remained unchanged at 0% and so far there has been no plan to drop it down further towards negative territory, yet that could easily change in the coming weeks or months if the current crisis exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic shows no signs of improving.

The current yields on ten year government bonds in the following countries are just 0.8% in the USA, 0.39% in the UK, 0.02% in Japan, and in some countries such as France and Germany they are already negative at -0.03% and -0.37% respectively. For those bonds to increase in value these already pitifully low yields would have to fall even further. By investing in bonds with negative yields, you are essentially paying for the privilege of holding the bonds. And I have always wondered what would make one invest in bonds with negative yields?

In the case of Germany, if one had a lot of cash which they didn’t want to invest in other securities or deposit in a bank account, they would invest it in those negative -0.37% yielding government bonds. They may be too scared to deposit it all in a bank, which is financially not in great shape and may even be faced with the very real risk of going under Lehman Brothers style. The two main German banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, are both currently not in great shape financially and may need a bailout to save them. If a bank goes under, your money in a bank is safe up to a certain threshold and if you have savings deposits, which exceed the threshold amount, you will likely lose the entire excess amount if the bank goes bust. In contrast to other Eurozone (EZ) countries, Germany is in better shape than many other EZ countries. Furthermore, it’s national central bank, the Bundesbank, is running a massive surplus against the national central banks of most of the other EZ countries.

Unlike Germany, the yields on the ten year government bonds for Italy and Greece are positive at 1.21% and 1.43% respectively. Yet both countries have enormous and unsustainable levels of debt and are thus at a much higher risk of default. As I explained in some of my previous articles, I continue to remain of the view that it is becoming increasingly likely that the Eurozone will not last and that all Eurozone countries will revert to their own currencies. If this were to happen, it is highly probable that within the EZ area, there will be a huge flight of money to those countries such as Germany who will be least affected by any great devaluations of their new currencies. For example, the New Mark is likely to strengthen in value whereas the New Lira or New Drachma is likely to fall in value quite sharply against the new currencies of other stronger former EZ countries. Thus within the framework of the entire EZ, negative yielding German bonds are probably one of the safest securities to invest your Euros into despite the fact they come with a price. If the EZ falls apart and most EZ banks go under, those negative yielding German bonds will immediately be denominated into strongly valued New Marks. By contrast, those positively yielding Italian and Greek bonds will be converted into new weaker currencies.

In spite of all this, I think government bonds are overall very expensive where their risks vastly outnumber their rewards. Of course, their low yields reflect the low interest rates of their countries. However, if one were to look at the chart of the yields of ten year UK and US bonds over a 40 year period, it is clear they’ve been in a huge bubble for the duration of this time frame. In September 1981, the yield on 10 year US treasury bonds was over 15% and in that same year in October, the yield on 10 year UK gilts was over 16%. Yet since that time, the yields on both bonds has been in a downward trend and currently they both yield less than 1%. Some are predicting that the interest rates of both countries will fall into negative territory and therefore the yields of both bonds will also be negative suggesting that if one were to buy such bonds even with their extremely low yield, the yield may get even lower.

An unpopular opinion I hold, which many don’t share, is the real risk of dramatic and unexpected inflation. Many are predicting a long period of negative interest rates and deflation, but I am not so sure. What concerns me greatly is the huge amount of debt in many countries. Much of this debt is a result of an unusually long period of low interest rates. Since the middle of the last financial crisis in 2008, total levels of global debt have increased over 50%. And now with the current new crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, this already staggering level of global debt is only going to get bigger as national governments plan huge rescue packages to prop up vulnerable businesses and households. In the USA, the Trump government is planning a $2tn stimulus package. In the past years since the 2008 financial crisis, large rounds of Quantitative Easing (QE) haven’t had too much of an affect on inflation. However this time it could well be different as the amounts of money printing rounds that national central banks will embark on could easily result in a great spike in inflation. This is very worrying as not only will this lead to central banks massively raising interest rates to tame this inflation, it will also make all outstanding government, corporate and household debt much more expensive to service. It is for those reasons that I think buying so called safe government bonds at current yields is a much more risky exercise than many realise.  Furthermore, as all those big accumulated existing debts become more expensive to service with rising interest rates, there will be lots more defaults which in turn will weaken the purchasing power of the currencies of major economies including the USA.

All these concerns naturally make me more attracted to precious metals like gold and silver, which, as tangible forms of insurance, will increase in value as the purchasing power of major currencies like the dollar and the euro declines. As precious metals are commodities, it is hard to predict their price movements. Yet if like me, you believe that they are a viable hedge against a world that is increasingly becoming smothered in debt, you will realise that there is quite a compelling case to owning some precious metals as a form of insurance against these economic vulnerabilities. Precious metals are the new safe havens rather than government bonds.

 

By Nicholas Peart

30th March 2019

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

Image: NikolayFrolochkin

 

MARKETS UPDATE: Thoughts On The Current Market Crash

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The last two months have been an exceptionally volatile period for global stock markets. The current CORVID-19 pandemic was a quintessential black swan event, which took everyone by surprise and its consequences have had a clear affect on the markets during this period. For a long time, I thought that markets were overvalued and due for an eventual correction. The root of my worries were based on the increasing levels of global debt since the last financial crisis of 2008 that have been fuelled by an unusually long period of low interest rates. With low interest rates money is cheap and cheap money has been the cause of the high valuations of many stocks and other assets such as property. All this concerned me. I knew it wasn’t sustainable and that eventually something would have to give. Yet little did I know that the catalyst for this current market crash would be a virus, which is now affecting citizens and the economies of every country on the planet.

I wrote an article back in 2017 and another one last year stating my fear that markets were overheating. Throughout all of 2019, I almost became resigned to the fact that we were in a ten year plus long bull market that seemed to show now signs of slowing down. Save for a sharp but very brief correction in equity markets from October to December 2018, the markets duly recovered and subsequently continued to hit new highs. Earlier this year, the NASDAQ index hit over 9,000 points and by mid February it had hit a new record of over 9,700 points. Back then I decided to view a longer term chart of the NASDAQ index and had discovered that back in March 2009, in the wake of all the wreckage of the last financial crisis, the NASDAQ index had collapsed to just under 1,300 points. In almost 11 years, the index had increased over 7 times in value. In the UK, only the FTSE 250 index comes close to matching the NASDAQ’s performance, but even the FTSE 250 has been no match. During that same time frame, the index went from under 6,000 points in March 2009 to a record high of almost 22,000 points in January this year. That represents an almost four fold increase in value. Impressive but still falling short of the NASDAQ’s run.

The reason for the NASDAQ’s epic performance is quite simply the unbelievable success of many of the biggest technology companies in the world, which are all listed on it’s exchange. The following NASDAQ listed companies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, Netflix and Microsoft: have all been quite simply ‘crushing it’ throughout the last decade.

In the UK, the two principle stock market indexes are the FTSE 100 and the FTSE 250. Even though the UK doesn’t have anywhere near the kinds of innovative and exponential tech companies that come out of the US, the UK has a lot of thriving successful growth businesses and lots of these are listed on the FTSE 250. The FTSE 100, on the other hand, is made up more of long established big businesses with multi billion pound market capitalizations. Examples of such companies include Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Rio Tinto, HSBC, Unilever, Vodafone and British American Tobacco. These are big behemoth companies, which may lack the growth prospects of the smaller businesses listed in the FTSE 250. Yet what they lack in growth potential, they make up for by paying quite large dividends to their shareholders as their businesses generate a lot of cash. The FTSE 100 overall has, by comparison, not been a great performer. Even though from March 2009 until the January 2020, it went from less than 3800 points to almost 7700 points. Even though the index more than doubled during this period, it’s also worth bearing in mind that just before the turn of the new millenium, on December 10th 1999, the index was over 6700 points.

What is noticeable about this particular market crash is just how dramatic it’s been. Before the very beginnings of this market crash, when the markets closed on Friday 21st February, the NASDAQ was trading at over 9500 points, the S&P 500 was over 3,300 points, the FTSE 100 was over 7,400 points and the FTSE 250 was just a few points short of 21,800 points. By the time the markets closed just a few days ago on Monday 23rd March, the NASDAQ was below 6,900 points, the S&P 500 was a little higher than 2,200 points, the FTSE 100 had gone below 5000 points, and the FTSE 250 was trading slightly north of 13,000 points. In fact, just a few days previously on March 19th, the FTSE 250 had hit almost 12,800 points.

In the space of little over a month, the NASDAQ had fallen around 27%, the S&P 500 had lost around 33%, the FTSE 100 had shed 32% and the FTSE 250 had lost over 40% of it’s value. Since these lows from last Monday, markets have made some gains owing to stimulus from central banks, yet at the close on Friday yesterday, a good chunk of these gains were erased.

Going forward

The question now is, how will markets behave over the coming weeks and months? Will the lows hit last Monday be retested? It is always hard to predict the future, but I think they will be. The difference between this crisis and others is that this virus has been very disruptive. Since there is still currently no cure for the virus, the only measures to contain the virus have been for governments to impose lockdowns and restrict the movement of people. The most affected industries include the airline and travel industries. The airline industry in particular has been greatly affected as the number of flights have been severely diminished. It is likely that even the most established airline companies will struggle going forward without some form of a government bailout. With their cash flows from operations dramatically reduced, they will be drawing on their precious cash reserves to keep the lights on. But the truth is, with the restriction of movement, most industries will be affected. If a lot of the most affected companies struggle to remain a going concern they will go bust and as a consequence many people will lose their jobs. As an increasing number of people lose their jobs, they will have no income and likely also little to no cash savings to keep them going. There will be a frantic need to create liquidity to free up emergency cash. And this is why there has been a sell off of almost everything, even the most defensive of assets such as gold. When people are desperate for cash they will sell anything. This notion that cash is trash is a myth. In a difficult crisis such as this one, hard cash is king.

So going back to my earlier question; will markets continue to fall? I think they will as I don’t see lockdown measures easing any time soon. I also see an increasing number of people continue to lose their jobs and as a result an increasing need for emergency cash as more incomes dry up. In this situation, markets will continue to sell off. Shares that may seem like a bargain now will get even cheaper. I think the situation is serious enough to say that it is likely that some of the lows of the 2008-9 financial crisis will be tested. Yet do I think there are currently bargain shares to buy? Of course. But at the same time one should ask themselves the following; how much free cash do they currently have to invest? Not essential cash to survive, but cash they can either afford to lose or not have any need to draw upon for at least five years. If the latter than I would recommend periodically drip-buying a select number of quality companies (that are not over leveraged, that generate a lot of cash and have sufficient liquidity to be able to ride out this crisis and thus recover once its over), investment trusts or tracker funds over the coming weeks and months.

Cheap money 

It is likely that as the current crisis continues to bite, they will be a lot of government intervention to help citizens and business. One solution that has been doing the rounds is the idea of creating ‘helicopter money’ whereby central banks print money which is then given directly to households to help them and keep them solvent. In the USA, the current Trump government is planning on putting together a $2tn rescue package to aid businesses and households most affected. With interest rates at close to zero, the idea of printing staggering sums of money is a tempting one. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, since the 2008 financial crisis we have had a long period of low interest rates. And since the first shocks of the current crisis began to appear, both the Fed and Back of England reduced interest rates even further. As of now, the current Fed interest rate stands at 0% and the Back of England interest rate is 0.1%. With such rock bottom rates, the temptation to just keep printing money to infinity is very strong. As previous rounds of Quantitative Easing (QE) since the 2008 financial crisis have barely had an impact on triggering inflation, the current conventional wisdom is that even bigger rounds of money printing will also barely stoke inflation. Even the former head of the European Central Bank (ECB) Mario Draghi who back in 2012 vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the Euro, recently commented that interest rates will remain low for a very long time. Others also share this belief. But what if, out of nowhere, in the midst of all this money printing, a tsunami of inflation catches everybody off guard forcing central banks to abruptly increase interest rates to control it?

In gold and silver we trust

If you have read some of my other articles you will see that I have always been a big fan of precious metals. And this is especially true now in our current economic climate where uber-low interest rates and cheap money have been reigning supreme. A consequence of more than a decade of low interest rates has been that total levels of government, corporate and household debts have increased dramatically. To exacerbate an already fragile economic situation, the current crisis has triggered central banks of major economies to drop interest rates to zero. On top of this, humongous rescue packages are being created to aid affected households and businesses. Although this may create short term relief, it will further accelerate already staggering levels of global debt, which have already been allowed to get out of control for too long. Taking on debt is fine when interest rates are low, but what happens if all of a sudden interest rates increase? I say this, because as I previously mentioned, not many people are taking into account the very real threat of inflation, which may finally be awakened out of its slumber in a big way as a consequence of larger than normal levels of money printing. When interest rates increase to control this inflation, suddenly all this cheap money floating around will seize to be cheap and all this gigantic debt will become more expensive to service.

I can’t help but think that all this will be nothing but beneficial towards the prices of gold and silver. Over the last several months, gold has been slowly increasing in value. It recently hit $1,700 an ounce and is currently hovering in the $1,600s. In my view, I think any dips in the gold price should be taken advantage of. It is unavoidable that there will be dips in the gold price as households scramble to free up cash, but over the coming months and years I think gold will do very well.

I am equally keen on silver. It is less scarce than gold and is more sensitive to industrial demand, but compared to gold it is currently extremely under-priced. For many years the silver to gold ratio (SGR) oscillated between around 20 and 100, and it was an incredibly rare moment if it ever went above 100. Over the last two weeks, this ratio broke the 100 ceiling and spiked to over 125 at one point. As I type, the ratio is 112. A consequence of this further distancing between the gold and silver price has caused some to say that silver is done and has lost its appeal as a store of value. Yet I disagree strongly. If anything, I think this is an incredibly good buying opportunity to have exposure to silver as I can foresee it playing catch up to gold in an epic way.

 

By Nicholas Peart

29th March 2020

(c)All Rights Reserved   

 

Image: OpenClipart-Vectors

 

Monte Dei Paschi Di Siena: The Rise And Fall Of The Oldest Bank In The World

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The Tuscan town of Siena was an important city during the 12th and 13th centuries and before the rise of the powerful Medici family it was home to Italy’s richest banks. It is also home to the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, first founded in Siena in 1472. 20 years before Christopher Columbus set sail to discover the New World. When walking through Siena’s medieval old town, you’ll find the bank’s headquarters located in the atmospheric Palazzo Salimbeni.

It was originally founded to provide loans to ‘poor or miserable or needy persons’. Siena’s golden period of prosperity was cut short by the Black Death plague in the mid 14th century. The plague reached Siena in May 1348 and by October of that year, it had taken approximately two thirds of the town’s population of 100,000 inhabitants. Siena never recovered from this event and the majority of it’s population was reduced to poverty. The bank was created to provide loans to these people at an interest rate of 7.5%. Since its formation, MPS has played an enormous role in the development of Siena and even today during its troubling times, the bank remains the city’s largest employer. Tourism is arguably the second biggest source of income for the city. The city gets its fair share of tourists yet it’s nowhere near on the gargantuan scale of its more prominent Tuscan cousin Florence, which even outside of the peak Summer season receives tourists by the truckload. Should, in the worst case, the bank follow the same fate as Lehman Brothers and completely collapse, tourism would immediately become much more vital to the economic wellbeing of the town.

Although the history of the bank goes back to 1472, its present formation dates back to 1642 when Siena (which ceased to be a Republic in 1555) was part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. After the unification of Italy in the 19th century the bank expanded its operations across the country becoming one of Italy’s leading banks. Regardless of the bank’s territorial expansion, MPS had always had been strongly connected to the city of Siena. In 1995 the bank was renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena and all the banks’ financial, credit and insurance branches were united under this new name. A not-for-profit arm was also created called Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which benefited the city and province of Siena substantially over time by investing large sums of money in the area’s education, health, culture, sports and tourism sectors. In 2006, Siena was elected as the city in Italy with the highest quality of life. Quite a feat considering how badly ravaged the city was by the Black Death more than six and a half centuries earlier. However, just a few years later the party would be well and truly over as the bank began it’s steep fall from grace.

The root of the bank’s problems go back to that same year when the bank was renamed and restructured. From 1995, the renamed Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena went on an acquisition spree buying out several Italian banks. The idea was to increase the bank’s profitability and make it a more global bank. Unfortunately, not only did the bank overpay for many of its acquisitions, it also acquired banks in poor financial health. Some even say that BMPS acquired these banks without doing any thorough due diligence such as properly scrutinising all the banks’ accounts etc. One such example of these acquisitions was BMPS acquiring Banca Antonvenata from Santander in 2007 for 9.25 billion euros. Just a few months earlier Santander had acquired Antonvenata from ABN Amro for 5.7 billion euros. The deal with BMPS netted the Spanish bank a cool 3.55 billion euros. It doesn’t take a Warren Buffett to see that BMPS had royally goofed up on this one. But that’s not the end of the story. BMPS had in fact transferred over 19 billion euros to ABN Amro, Santander and Abbey National Treasury Service to acquire Banca Antonvenata since the bank had a deficit of 10 billion euros. BMPS may well have gone to the casinos of Las Vegas with the money, since no one in the bank had bothered to do any research before making the acquisition. Quite astonishing considering the amount involved in the transaction.

The following year in 2008, the Global Financial Crash unfolded. Highly leveraged and indebted banks such as BMPS were especially vulnerable. By 2009, the bank began to experience huge loses at some of its branches. The president of the bank at the time, Giuseppe Mussari, hid these losses in the bank’s accounts by entering into derivatives contracts with Deutsche Bank and Nomura. All this was made public in November 2012 and the share price of the bank subsequently began to dramatically slide. As I type this article the current share price is 2.78 euros. In July 2016 the share price was over 10,000 euros (100 euros in old money before a 100-1 share conversion in November 2016 where 100 old shares were converted into one new share).

Since 2013 BMPS has been at the receiving end of a number of bail outs to prevent it from collapsing and creating thousands of job losses (as of 2016, 25,556 people were working at the bank). In December 2016 the Italian government raised 20 billion euros to recapitalise the country’s ailing banks. Later in the summer of 2017 the bank was bailed out by the government for 8.1 billion euros in which the Ministry of Economy and Finance arm of the Italian government acquired a whopping 68.247% stake.

There may finally be some light though. According to a Reuter’s article recently published on 4th April 2018 concerning the latest developments of BMPS, two top executives of the bank went on record to say that it was on track to meet its targets in it’s debt reduction program. This includes a disposal in mid-2018 of a staggering 25 billion euros worth of bad loans ‘repackaged as securities’. How that will pan out is anyone’s guess and the question remains of whether the bank will ever be totally free from its shackles?

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

REFERENCES/FURTHER READING

https://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MPS-Case-Study-Final-EDITED.pdf

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/9530852/Decline-of-Monte-dei-Paschi-di-Siena-worlds-oldest-bank-leaves-city-paying-the-price.html

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/dec/22/monte-dei-paschi-the-history-of-the-worlds-oldest-bank

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-eurozone-banks-italy-monte-dei-paschi/monte-dei-paschis-bosses-confident-about-turnaround-plan-sources-idUKKCN1HB2CV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banca_Monte_dei_Paschi_di_Siena

https://www.gruppomps.it/en/