It's the zero bound yield curve, stupid!
I have been increasingly suspicious since late 2011 that Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579) may be the modern John Maynard Keynes.
I said as much in a Financial Times op-ed when I wrote in December of that year, that the famous "Gresham’s Law" needs a corollary. Not only does "bad money drive out good money" but "cheap money" may do harm as well. Just as Newtonian physics breaks down, and Einsteinian theories prevail at the speed of light, so too might easy money, which has invariably led to stronger economic recoveries, now fail to stimulate growth close to the zero bound.
Historically, central banks have comfortably relied on a model which dictates that lower and lower yields will stimulate aggregate demand and, in the case of financial markets, drive asset prices up and purchases outward on the risk spectrum as investors seek to maintain higher returns. Today, near zero policy rates and in some cases negative sovereign yields have succeeded in driving asset markets higher and keeping real developed economies afloat.
But now, after nearly six years of such policies producing only anemic real and nominal GDP growth, and – importantly – declining corporate profit growth as shown in Chart 1, it is appropriate to question not only the effectiveness of these historical conceptual models, but entertain the increasing probability that they may, counterintuitively, be hazardous to an economy’s health.
The proposed Gresham’s corollary is not just another name for "pushing on a string" or a "liquidity trap." Both of these concepts depend significantly on the perception of increasing risk in credit markets which in turn reduce the incentive for lenders to expand credit. But rates at the zero bound do much the same thing. Zero-bound money – quality aside – lowers incentives to expand loans and create credit growth. Will Rogers once humorously said in the Depression that he was more concerned about the return of his money than the return on his money.
His simple expression was another way of saying that from a system wide perspective, when the return on money becomes close to zero in nominal terms and substantially negative in real terms, then normal functionality may break down. If at the same time, and over a several year timeframe, bond investors become increasingly convinced that policy rates will remain close to 0% for an "extended period of time", then yield curves flatten; 5, 10, and 30 year bonds move lower in yield, which at first blush would seem to be positive for economic expansion (reducing mortgage rates and such).
It would seem that lower borrowing costs in historical logic should cause companies and households to borrow and spend more. The post-Lehman experience, as well as the lost decades of Japan, however, show that they may not, if these longer term yields are close to the zero bound.
Chart 1: U.S. Corp Profit Growth (1993-2015)
In the case of low yielding sovereign, as well as corporate AAA and AA rated bonds, this new Gresham’s corollary is certainly counterintuitive. If a government or a too big to fail government bank can borrow near 0%, then theoretically it should have no problem making a profit or increasing real economic growth. What is more important, however, is the flatness of the yield curve and its effect on lending across all credit markets.