Did the risk-free rate move to Frankfurt?

(republished from “A View from the Trenches“, September 16th, 2012)

Click here to read this article in pdf format: September 16 2012

Last week, after the German Bundesverfassungsgericht decided not deactivate the debt monetization program announced by Mr. Draghi a week earlier, the Italian government sold EUR4BN in 4.75% 2014 notes at an average yield of 2.75%. This compares with 4.65% obtained at a sale of the securities on July 13th.

With the European Central Bank backstopping short-term EU sovereign debt (as long as the issuer submits to a fiscal adjustment program), we should see two trends taking place:

The first one, mentioned in our last letter, is that the market should arbitrage between the rates of core Europe and its periphery, converging into a single Euro zone target yield. The Italian auction mentioned above, together with continuous weakness in Germany’s sovereign debt, the movement of capital out of the US dollar to the Euro zone (lifting the Euro to $1.31) and the rally in EU banks, would seem to indicate that this convergence is slowly materializing. The critical piece here, the one that will really nail this coffin, is the return of deposits transferred to the core of the Euro zone, back to the periphery that originated them. This is what’s behind the ongoing negotiations towards a banking union. Ironically, if the banking union was successful, making deposits return to banks of the periphery, it would make it easier for the Germans to leave the Euro zone, because the current imbalances of the Target 2 system would disappear, radically lowering the cost of the exit!

The second trend, the one we missed last week, consists in that –perhaps- we will no longer be able to talk about “the” risk-free rate of interest, when we refer to the US sovereign yield. If the first trend proves true, there would be no reason to believe that the short-term US sovereign yield should keep as low as it is vs. the equivalent EU sovereign yield. For all practical purposes, in the segment of up-to-3 years, the European Central Bank would set the value of the world’s risk-free rate! The big assumption here is of course, that the first trend, above, holds true. Only then, the arbitrage between the US sovereign yield and the EU sovereign yield could be triggered.

What would the levels be, for the up-to-3 year yields? As we know, the European Central Bank will not pre-commit to a yield target. Of course, they don’t want to be challenged, because there is only so much they can sterilize before they start suffering a net interest loss, as we explained last week. But from a dynamic perspective, what counts is not the level, but the driver: In the long run, as the sterilization fails (also explained in our last letter and first proposed back on May 13th, 2010), the short-term “risk-free” rate of interest would be driven by the consolidated fiscal deficit of the Euro zone.

Having said this, the remaining question is what determines the value of the long-term risk-free rate of interest. The Fed, in our view, although not announced last Thursday, will eventually continue to purchase long-term US sovereign debt. Effectively in the beginning, the Fed would set the value of the risk-free yield curve, past the three-year point. When things get out of control and inflation expectations for the US dollar take the lead (in a few years), the fiscal deficit of the US should determine the dynamics of the long-end of the curve….Does that make sense? No! (At least not, if you are not Keynesian) Because if “things get out of control”, we must say good bye to long-term interest rates altogether. That market will evaporate, and the US will only be able to sell short-term debt. At that point, if the Euro zone still exists as we know it, the battle for the ownership of the risk free rate will have been won by the European Central Bank, by definition. Why? Because by definition, if the Euro zone still exists, it is because they succeeded in stabilizing their fiscal problems. Otherwise, the shortening of the term horizon for the US sovereign yield should continue contracting, until hyperinflation completely wipes it out.

Additional thoughts

With these thoughts in mind, one cannot but wonder at the idiocy blindness of those who sustain that both the European and the US central banks removed “tail risks” in the last days, with their new measures. To start, the whole idea that a tail risk exists is simply a fallacy of Keynesian economics. It assumes there is a universe of possible outcomes and, as if humans acted driven by animal spirits, randomly, each one of them has a likelihood of occurring. In all honesty….what else can occur if a central bank prints money to generate a bubble? Why would the bursting of the bubble be called a tail risk, rather than the logical outcome? Why, if that was tried in 2001 in the US, resulting in the crisis of 2008…why would it be any different now, when there is an explicit announcement to print billions per month? Why?

The splitting of the risk-free interest rates, in short and long terms, and the “moving” of the short-term to the Euro zone somehow sadly reminds us of the division of the Roman Empire, between West and East, when the capital moved to Constantinople. Is this ominous?

Finally, as inflation expectations, post the ECB/Fed announcements pick up, the rally in credit (i.e. IG18 credit default swaps index reaching 83bps) is telling us that banks outside the Euro zone or the USD zone -banks which did not benefit so much from a “portfolio” effect-, will have a hard time remaining profitable, unless they take additional risks, or they get themselves the same subsidy that the ECB and the Fed give to their zombie banks. This suggests to us that the Canadian dollar should not rise significantly above the US dollar.

Martin Sibileau

Mr. Sibileau currently works as Director for the Loan Portfolio Management team of a Toronto-headquartered financial institution. In his free time, he regularly writes on global macroeconomic developments at www.sibileau.com.

Since 1997, he has held various positions in the areas of corporate finance, strategy consulting, international banking, commercial banking and risk management.

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