Joseph Schumpeter, the originator of the phrase “creative destruction,” authored a less well-known corollary at some point in the 1930s. “Profit,” he wrote, “is temporary by nature: It will vanish in the subsequent process of competition and adaptation.” And so it has, certainly at the micro level for which his remark was obviously intended. Once proud, seemingly indestructible capitalistic giants have seen their profits fall short of “everlasting” and exhibited a far more ephemeral character. Kodak, Sears, Barnes & Noble, AOL and countless others have been “competed” to near oblivion by advancing technology, more focused management, or evolving business models that had better ideas more “adaptable” to a new age.
Yet capitalism at a macro level must inherently be different than the micro individual businesses that comprise it. Profits in total cannot be temporary or competed away if capitalism as we know it is to survive. Granted, the profit share of annual GDP can increase or decrease over time in its ongoing battle with labor and government for market share. But capitalism without profits is like a beating heart without blood. Not only is it profit’s role to stimulate and rationally distribute new investment (blood) to the economic body, but the profit heart in turn must be fed in order to survive.
And just as profits are critical to the longevity of our capitalistic real economy so too is return or “carry” critical to our financial markets. Without the assumption of “carry,” or return over and above the fixed, if mercurial, yield on an economy’s policy rate (fed funds), then investors would be unwilling to risk financial capital and a capitalistic economy would die for lack of oxygen. The carry or return I speak to is most commonly assumed to be a credit or an equity risk “premium” involving some potential amount of gain or loss to an investor’s principal. Corporate and high yield bonds, stocks, private equity and emerging market investments are financial assets that immediately come to mind. If the “carry” or potential return on these asset classes were no more than the 25 basis points offered by today’s fed funds rate, then who would take the chance? Additionally, however, “carry” on an investor’s bond portfolio can be earned by extending duration and holding longer maturities. It can be collected by selling volatility via an asset’s optionality, or it can be earned by sacrificing liquidity and earning what is known as a liquidity premium. There are numerous ways then to earn “carry,” the combination of which for an entire market of investable assets constitutes a good portion of its “beta” or return relative to the “risk free” rate, all of which may be at risk due to artificial pricing.
This “carry” constitutes the beating heart of our financial markets and ultimately our real economy as well, since profits on paper assets are inextricably linked to profits in the real economy, which are inextricably linked to investment and employment. Without these, the wounded heart dies and shortly thereafter the body. But there comes a point when no matter how much blood is being pumped through the system as it is now, with zero-based policy rates and global quantitative easing programs, that the blood itself may become anemic, oxygen-starved, or even leukemic, with white blood cells destroying more productive red cell counterparts. Our global financial system at the zero-bound is beginning to resemble a leukemia patient with New Age chemotherapy, desperately attempting to cure an economy that requires structural as opposed to monetary solutions. Let me shift from the metaphorical to the specific to make my case.
If “carry” is the oxygen that feeds financial assets then it is clear to all – even to central banks with historical models – that there is a lot less of it now than there used to be. In the bond market – interest rates, risk spreads, volatility and liquidity premiums are all significantly less than they were five years ago during the financial crisis and, in many cases, less than they have ever been in history. Before 2009, the U.S. had never had a policy rate so low, and in the U.K. short-term rates at 50 basis points are now nearly 2% lower than they have ever been, which is a long, long time. Throughout periodic depressions, the Bank of England in the 20th, 19th and even 18th century never dropped short rates below 2%. Add to that of course the New Age chemotherapy called Quantitative Easing (QE) being employed everywhere (and now in double doses at the Bank of Japan,) and you have an “all in,” “whatever it takes” mentality that has successfully lowered longer-term interest rates, risk spreads, volatility and risk premiums to similar extremes. Granted, the astute observer might counter that corporate and high yield risk “spreads” have historically been lower — and they were in 2006/2007 — but never have corporate and high yield bond “yields” been lower. Never has your average B/BB company been able to issue debt at well below 5% and never — which is my point — have investors received less for the risk they are taking. “Never (as I tweeted recently) have investors reached so high in price for so low a return. Never have investors stooped so low for so much risk.”