With interest rates rising, and rapidly so, the driving force that dictated decision making in financial markets for the past fifteen years is dying out. In a flash, disoriented investors have been exposed to a new world, one that demands dramatically different expectations for what constitutes a decent return.
Yet for all that’s changed, it can be tough to accept the era of ever-lower rates is truly over. Deep down there may be a tacit acknowledgment of changing winds, but it is often coupled with denial about what this all means.
The hope, it seems, is that the damage has already been done. Technology stocks have been clobbered, and house prices have finally started falling in Canada. But the undertow generated by rising rates is hard to contain, and for that reason it will likely ripple through financial markets, hitting everything from private equity to blue-chip stocks.
Such a sea change can be hard to grasp. Since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, investors of all stripes have grown accustomed to ever-falling interest rates. By July, 2020, the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond, a benchmark for financial markets, had dropped to a paltry 0.52 per cent.
The trend was so absurd, such a deviation from historical norms, that it even spawned a new mantra: “lower for longer.” Investors learned to accept that rates would stay low for longer than once thought imaginable – and it lasted for so long that it became the norm.
And now, in just seven months, it’s all changed, after scorching inflation and geopolitical earthquakes forced a paradigm shift. In July, the Bank of Canada raised its benchmark rate by a full percentage point, something not seen since 1998. The Federal Reserve hiked its own by 0.75 percentage points a few weeks later.
The reaction since has been quite bizarre. The Nasdaq Composite index for one, a barometer for growth stocks, is up 23 per cent from its June low. Investors seem to think the worst is behind us, and they’re happy to return to the way things were.
The reality: It is highly likely that there is no going back, at least not for quite some time.
“Many economists, strategists and investors are thinking the world hasn’t changed – that we’re in a normal cycle,” said Tom Galvin, chief investment officer at City National Rochdale, a subsidiary of Royal Bank of Canada with roughly US$50-billion in assets under management. He disagrees. “We are in a new era.”
This summer, Mr. Galvin put out a paper that spelled this all out, explaining why the new mantra must be ‘higher for longer.’
“Inflation will be higher for longer than we anticipated, interest rates will be higher for longer, geopolitical tensions and uncertainty will be higher for longer and high volatility in the economy and financial markets will be higher for longer,” he wrote.
Of course, Mr. Galvin is only one voice, and everything in economics and finance is so chaotic right now that it’s near impossible to call anything with 100 per cent certainty. In Canada, inflation is at its highest level in nearly 40 years, yet unemployment is at a record low. That isn’t supposed to happen.
But in the past two weeks a spate of Federal Reserve officials have given public interviews saying much the same.
The day after stock markets rallied this week on the back of news that month-over-month U.S. inflation was flat in July, Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve, told the Financial Times that investors shouldn’t be so giddy. While the data was encouraging, core prices, a basket that strips out volatile items such as energy costs, still rose. “This is why we don’t want to declare victory on inflation coming down,” she said. “We’re not near done yet.”
Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG, can’t quite understand why investors are forgetting what scares the Fed the most: inflation. One of the central bank’s biggest failures in the past 50 years was allowing U.S. inflation to grow out of control – or ‘entrenched,’ in economics parlance – in the 1970s, forcing the Fed to eventually take drastic action to bring it back in line.
“This is a Fed that remembers the seventies,” Ms. Swonk said. “Most people operating in financial markets don’t.” Especially not the twenty- and thirty-something retail traders who sent stock markets soaring in 2021.
Fed officials can’t say outright they’ll tolerate a recession as a trade off for squashing inflation, but the eighties is proof they have and they will. “They’re going to raise rates and hold it for a while to grind inflation down,” Ms. Swonk predicts.
Despite the history, there is still speculation in certain corners of the financial markets that the Fed will change course. And there are some recent precedents of doing so. Twice over the past decade, the Fed and the Bank of Canada signalled they were ready to take action to cool the economy, but both times the central banks ultimately backed off. They did so first in 2013, after bond investors freaked out, and then again in 2019.
The big difference between now and then is inflation. Even Mike Novogratz, one of the most popular investors in cryptocurrencies, the mother of all speculative assets, warned in the spring that rates won’t be falling any time soon. “There is no cavalry coming to drive a V-shaped recovery,” he wrote in a letter to investors after the crypto market crashed, referencing the quick stock market rebound after the pandemic first hit. “The Fed can’t ‘save’ the market until inflation falls.”
Predicting precisely how financial markets will be impacted by higher rates is hard, but just like unprofitable technology stocks, the asset classes that benefitted the most from the low rate world are those most susceptible to tremors. Private equity and private credit, to name two, are near the top of the list.
When debt was ultra cheap, private equity funds could fund their buyouts for next to nothing. At the same time, passive investing was gathering steam, taking the shine off hedge funds and mutual funds. Private equity, then, became a vehicle for outsized returns.
Earlier this year, Harvard Business School professor Victoria Ivashina wrote a paper predicting a shake out in the sector, arguing that these tailwinds aren’t there anymore. “As the flow of funds into private equity stabilizes and as the industry growth slows down, the fee structure will compress and compensation will shift to be more contingent on performance,” she wrote.
Already there are signs that major investors are moving away from private equity. Earlier this month, John Graham, chief executive of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, one of the world’s largest institutional investors, disclosed that CPPIB saw more value in public markets than private ones for now. And in a July report, Jefferies, an investment bank, wrote that major money managers, including pension and sovereign wealth funds, had sold US$33-billion worth of stakes in buyout and venture capital funds in the first half of the year, the most on record.
Private debt funds, which lend money to higher risk borrowers, are also vulnerable in the current environment. Money poured into the sector over the past five years because these investment vehicles tend to pay 8-per-cent yields, but that return looks much less rosy now that one-year guaranteed investment certificates pay nearly 4.5 per cent.
By no means are these asset classes dead in the water. The same goes with stocks and so many others. Rates have jumped, and quickly, but they are still low by historical standards.
However, there are many reasons why investors of all stripes should not be expecting a quick return to lower for longer. The latest inflation data is encouraging, but it’s a single data point. Who knows what type of energy crisis Europe and the United Kingdom will face this winter, and what that will do to oil and gas prices.
Inflation also isn’t known to disappear quickly. “It’s easy to get from 6-per-cent core inflation to 4 per cent,” Ms. Swonk, the economist, said. “It’s really hard to get from 4 per cent to 2 per cent.”
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