The world is experiencing a historic surge in interest rates. Jim Grant, editor of «Grant’s Interest Rate Observer», believes the turmoil could be the beginning of a multi-decade bear market in bonds.
In this in-depth interview, he explains what the risks are – and where opportunities arise.
The spike was unexpected: In the US, the yield on 10-year treasuries is rising rapidly toward 5%, the highest level since 2007. From Europe to Japan to Australia, long-term interest rates are also trending upward almost everywhere in the world. There is much speculation about the causes. What is clear, however, is that this shock will not be without consequences.
«It raises the interesting possibility that we are embarked on a new bond bear market,» says Jim Grant, editor of the iconic investment bulletin «Grant’s Interest Rate Observer». «Bonds are unusual in the world of financial assets as their prices historically tend to trend in generation-length intervals; something we don’t see so much in stocks or commodities», he adds.
In this in-depth interview with The Market NZZ, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, the seasoned expert on financial history explains what persistently higher interest rates could mean for investors, what risks are associated with this new environment and where long-term opportunities arise.
«I think gold ought not to trade as an inflation hedge, but as an investment in monetary disorder of which we surely have enough in the world»: Jim Grant.
Mr. Grant, «Grant’s Interest Rate Observer» is celebrating its 40th anniversary. What are you currently observing in connection with the massive surge in interest rates that the financial markets are experiencing?
Well, we certainly have something to observe. It’s been a long time, so I would say a couple of things. One is that the movement from interest rates bordering on nothing to interest rates knocking on the door of normal – that speed of rise – is something we have rarely, if ever, seen before. It’s like a car going from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds. So this is a very rapid and, one might conjecture, a very disruptive rise because it has been so fast.
How can this turmoil in the bond market be put into historical perspective?
It raises the interesting possibility that we are embarked on a new bond bear market. Bonds are unusual in the world of financial assets as their prices historically tend to trend in generation-length intervals; something we don’t see so much in stocks or commodities.
How did such generational cycles play out in the past?
In the United States, bond yields fell from around the end of the Civil War for 35 years to the end of the 19th century. Then, they rose very gradually for 20 years, whereupon they fell again from around 1921 to 1946. Next, the great post-war bond bear market began, taking yields all the way up to 15% in 1981. After that, the great bond bull market started that took yields down to 1% in 2021. Of course, in Europe and Japan yields on shorter-dated securities fell even well below zero, to the tune of $16 trillion of securities were priced to yield less than nothing.
What can be derived from this for today’s environment?
Going back about 150 years, there has been a succession of bond bull and bear markets, each one at least 20 years in length. So perhaps since 2021 we have begun a lengthy excursion to the upside in yields – and if that’s the case, the catch phrase ought to be not «yields for longer», but «yields for much, much, much longer». Then again, nothing says this exercise in pattern recognition necessarily guarantees any future outcome. But for what it is worth, this is one way to frame this most violent and dramatic rise in bond yields.
Why do you think a new cycle may have begun in the bond market?
Here’s one way to think about it: In 1981, President Reagan saw that the air traffic controllers’ union was threatening to strike. So he warned them not to strike, arguing it’s against the public and it’s illegal. The air traffic controllers struck anyway, so Reagan fired them all and brought in new ones. That was about the time when interest rates peaked. It was a marker of the times. Back then, we didn’t know that this was the end of a 45-year bond bear market. It was a symbolic end: President Reagan broke this important union. It was a change; it was like commodity prices breaking in 1980.
And what does this have to do with the current situation?
Fast forward to today, another President, Joe Biden, goes out to Detroit. He walks the picket line in solidarity with the strikers of the auto union, encouraging them: «Hang in there, you got it!» To me, that is another sign of the times, another kind of omen. So it might just be that we are embarked on rates much, much, much higher for much, much, much longer. And, it might just be that we are embarked on not just a cycle of inflation but an age of inflation.
So should we expect further tremors in the bond market?
We’ve just talked about how fast this bond bear market we’re hypothesizing about has been to date. But we haven’t talked about the tempo. For instance, at the beginning of the previous bond bear market in 1964, it took ten years for the yield on long-dated treasuries to go from 2¼% to 3¼%. So nothing says that the current rate of speed is going to continue. As a matter of fact, it can’t continue because otherwise rates would need three digits to write them down. So based on form, on the historical precedent, the tempo is going to be very measured at times. In other words, it might just be that for a certain time, the bond market won’t be very dramatic at all. Yet, it won’t go back to 2%, which will be good for some people, not good for others, but in any case, very different from what we’ve seen over the last four decades.
What are the consequences of this fundamental change for investments?
During the course of not one investment career, but rather one and a half investment careers, the whole world has become accustomed to interest rates basically only going in one direction. Of course, there was plenty of volatility along the way, but persistent, if not continuous declines in rates have been the norm for the careers and investment minds of most living human beings. Consequently, expectations are deeply embedded in our collective psyche that rates do one thing, which is to decline. Yet here we are, observing them go up. So it’s no wonder that many people don’t exactly want to believe it. It’s highly irregular, and not at all in the way of our collective experience going back many, many years.
So how will this change the environment for investment?
During the great protracted bond bull market beginning in 1981, bonds and stocks could reliably be expected to move inversely from one another: Stocks would go up, bonds down, and vice versa. As a result, bonds provided a nice hedge or cushion to one’s equity exposure. That was the case for a long time, and it was especially attractive when bonds were yielding something. Indeed, long-dated treasuries yielded 14% as recently as 1984, and as much as 10% as recently as 1987. So for many of the past forty years, bonds not only provided a portfolio balance, but also delivered a substantial measure of interest income along the way.
This advantageous arrangement ended, or at least became much less advantageous, during the long period of zero percent rates and QE: Bonds yielded very little and might have provided some cushion, if stocks decline. But there was no great interest income for a long time from one’s bond position. Today however, there is a possibility that bonds and stocks could decline at the same time, as was the case for many years in the last bond bear market, beginning in the late Sixties and continuing into the early Eighties. So correlations could change. The popular 60/40 portfolio could deliver disappointing returns, rather than persistently attractive ones – and that too would be a big change in the investment weather.
That’s not exactly an uplifting outlook.
This is not to say that in a time of persistently rising yields, there aren’t some distinct advantages from the saver’s, the long-term investor’s point of view. One of the classics of fixed income investing is a book called «Inside the Yield Book» by Martin Leibowitz and Sidney Homer. It came out at a time when yields were printed and bound in books, before the digital era, the Bloomberg era. Chapter one of the 1972 edition of «Inside the Yield Book» is entitled «Interest on Interest». It describes the arithmetic of a bond investor investing semi-annual coupons at rising rates of interest, pointing out that interest on interest for long periods can contribute as much as one half of the total return. It points out further that in times of rising yields, the yield to maturity is going to be higher than the yield at which you purchased the bond because you will be investing not at the coupon rate, but at ever increasing rates.
How exactly does this compounding effect work?
Let’s say, you buy a 6% bond maturing in thirty years. In a bond bull market with continually declining interest rates, you reinvested that 6% coupon in ever lower rates and thereby ever lower returns. So the yield to maturity was not 6%, but something less than that. Now, imagine you purchase that same security today in an environment with persistently, if not continuously rising rates over the next thirty or forty years. The rate you earn on that coupon won’t be 6%. It’s likely to be something higher, and therefore your yield to maturity is going to be better than 6%.
So a bear market in bonds also brings benefits?
Indeed. For investors, it opens up another new vista to come: opportunities for interest on interest. Of course, this does not apply to people who need coupon income to pay their rent and buy their groceries. But for savers, for pension funds, for sovereign wealth funds, for people who are in the business of reinvesting their interest income this is a not-disadvantageous thing, this bond bear market. But again, to re-emphasize: This is all hypothetical, I don’t want to sound like some cocksure dogmatic prophet, which I assure you I am not.
But let’s assume you are correct in your thesis on the future development of interest rates. In principle, do bonds therefore offer an attractive alternative to equities in the portfolio?
Yes, what is old will be new again. Bonds really earn something besides nothing or less than nothing which was the case for a long time. But as mentioned earlier, it’s going to take some time getting used to it. So far, the stock market pretends not to notice. This seems surprising. As we point out in a recent issue of «Grant’s», the volatility of the bond market is very elevated, whereas the volatility of the stock market is very subdued. So you have to ask yourself: How can complacency reign in junior securities, when anxiety is the mood in the market of senior securities? This doesn’t make intuitive sense.
Where could the pressure of rising rates cause major problems?
I suspect that this most sudden and even violent lurch higher in interest rates is going to test financial structures that came into being during the period of very low nominal interest rates. Think of what all came into being, when money was proverbially free from 2010 to 2021: Cryptocurrencies flourished, dito venture capital and private equity. There were no constraints on sovereign debt issuance, so public credit was expanded dramatically. Interest expense seemed to be forever minimal and not worrisome because, after all, rates would never rise. To some degree, the entire world was capitalized on the expectation of extremely low interest rates.
And how do things look now?
All that has changed, but not in the expectations yet. I think people are still trying to deal with the shock of the perception of the possibility of much higher rates for a long time. Not every company has had to refinance so far, not every private equity company has met a hostile reception in the credit markets, and not every country has had to face the consequences of a potentially ruinously high national invoice for interest expense. All this is still in the making. So I’m not so quick to believe that this rise in rates, as dramatic as it has been, is going to be solitary or helpful just to savers. No, I think it’s a much, much deeper phenomenon and we’ll learn more about it in the coming fiscal quarters and years. That’s for sure.
With the crisis facing British pension funds and the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, we have already seen two situations with major turmoil. Do you expect further stress in the system?
Who knows, but the protracted selloff in US treasuries is properly raising concerns that the March regional banking crisis never ended but only took the summer off. All-time low interest rates beguiled, seduced and even coerced people into doing things they would not have done perhaps except for interest rates that were not the product of the marketplace but rather the product of the models of the central bankers of the world. The problem with 4%, 5% and 6% interest rates today is not 4%, 5% and 6% on their face. The real problem is the preceding regime of zero percent rates, and the debt accumulation that those rates fostered and brought into being.
Then again, interest rates could also fall again. Or to put it another way: What are the specific forces that could foster a long bear market in bonds?
One cause might be an embedded, what they call, structural inflation. If inflation is part of the times, the spirit of the age, that could be one driver. Another cause could be a deterioration of public credit. For a long time, the United States has been in the privileged position of being the one and only superpower and the issuer of the one and only reserve currency of the world. But in its humanity, America is not so very different from other countries.
What do you mean by that?
Essentially, the privilege of consuming much more than you produce is sort of the poisoned chalice gift of a reserve currency. It’s like saying: All right, you can pay your bills in your currency you alone can produce and the world will accept it because of your evident strength and enterprise and power. If Uganda, Britain, Singapore or even Switzerland was given this privilege, I imagine any other country would have done the same. But what we have done in America is that we brought up immense net international debts and very large domestic sovereign debts. So altogether a lot of debts, financed with the dollar which – as we convinced ourselves – is kind of the Coca-Cola or Microsoft of monetary world brands. That’s a very seductive thing to have come to believe.
So the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is proving to be a curse?
When we speak about the troubles in public credit, that’s another way of saying there are more bonds on offer than are demanded at prevailing rates of interest. The United States has been downgraded by Standard & Poors’ and by Fitch, and Moody’s maybe would prefer to do the same. America is a Triple-A country in many respects. The Statue of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, you can’t downgrade those. It’s part of the whole business model of this country, and it’s a pretty good business model. But financially speaking, we have taken advantage of these things; the things that make America truly what it is – not the financial gimmicks that make us more encumbered than we ought to be.