There has been much talk about the “search for yield” in investment markets.
Investor interest in decent yield bearing investments has seen the price of such assets rise and their yields (or the cash flow they provide relative to their price) fall. This is clearly evident during the last three years.
The chart below shows the yield available on various Australian assets today versus what they offered three years ago. All have seen a fall in their yields to varying degrees.
But what’s driving this? Is it a bubble? What warning signs should we watch? What does it mean for investors?
Why all the interest in yield?
The first thing to note is that interest in the yield or cash flow an investment provides is a normal part of investing. But it seems to become a greater focus at various points in time. This is particularly so when interest rates are relatively low and investors are a bit wary about going for growth.
In Japan it’s become the norm as interest rates have stayed at/near zero for 15 years. In the US and Australia, yield focussed investing was in favour in the 1950s when interest rates were low and investors still cautious after the Great Depression and WW2. It became particularly apparent last decade as investors started putting more into yield plays like property, infrastructure and credit as bond yields remained relatively low only to be interrupted by the GFC. It has since returned with a vengeance.
There are three main drivers:
- Low interest rates have pushed bank deposit rates and bond yields down, all of which is encouraging investors into higher-yielding alternatives.
- Reduced fear of economic meltdown has helped investors feel comfortable taking on more risk but with memories of the GFC and its aftermath still fresh, this is only in a cautious fashion. So there is a desire for the comfort provided by investments that get a high proportion of their return from income.
- Finally, aging populations are driving a longer term interest in yield. This started last decade as the first baby boomers moved into their pre-retirement phase and is intensifying now as they are starting to retire. This is driving demand for investments paying decent income in the form of dividends, rent, interest payments, etc. That said, trying to get a handle on the precise impact of this is nigh on impossible given increasing retirement ages and longevity driving a need for a decent growth exposure.
Is it structural of cyclical?
The safest option in investment markets is to assume something is cyclical (i.e. short-term) rather than structural (i.e. long-term) until proven otherwise. Demographic influences are clearly structural and long-term. However, there is a structural aspect to low interest rates that cannot be ignored.
First, to state the obvious, interest rates have been trending down with lower peaks and troughs since the 1980s.
Second, the period of near zero/low global interest rates that has followed the GFC doesn’t look like it is about to end anytime soon. While the low global rates and easy money of the last few years have been constantly met with scepticism and concern about inflation and higher rates around the corner, the reality is that it hasn’t happened.
We are now into the fourth year in a row where the hoped for lift off to above trend global growth has not happened. Global growth remains OK at around 3 to 3.5%, but it’s below trend and uneven with periodic flare ups of concern about recession and deflation as we have seen during the last month or so in relation to Europe.
While it’s dangerous to say “this time it’s different”, quite clearly the world is different to the pre-GFC environment with excess levels of saving, spare capacity and more cautious attitudes to debt resulting in sub-par, uneven growth and low inflation/deflationary risks.
The impact of low bond yields
The logic of the chase for yield can be seen in relation to Australian commercial property (i.e. office, retail and industrial property). The next chart shows average commercial property yields relative to 10-year bond yields. While commercial property yields have fallen over the last 34 years from an average of 8.3% to an average of 6.6%, the yield on bonds has literally collapsed.
While the step down in bond yields was initially treated with scepticism on the grounds that “it’s just a bubble” or “inflation will soon take off forcing yields back up”, the longer it has persisted, thanks to sub-par growth and low inflation, the more investors have come to expect bond yields to stay down. So they increasingly invest in yield bearing alternatives such as property.
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