Today, let’s try to do something a little playful to let us tie together two topics: Donald Trump’s behavior, and negative interest rates.
Don’t see the connection? Well, you will in a bit.
One of the questions I ask myself whenever I see a stock market hiccup is whom Trump is going to blame for it. Because he never blames himself for anything.
When stocks go up, he takes full credit. But when there’s a problem he blames a third party — the way he blamed the Federal Reserve for the big market drop Monday or for other drops or for the fact that U.S. economic growth seems to be slowing down.
Could market drops and economic weakening have anything to do with the trade and currency wars that Trump has started with China? Nah, it’s the Fed or Democratic politicians or some other scapegoats du jour at fault.
Because I’m both a business journalist and a grandparent, I began wondering the other day where I’d seen such childish behavior other than in a nursery school.
And then it hit me — Wall Street.
A handful of money managers, you see, take all the credit when they make huge gains by pursuing ultra-risky strategies like loading up on Internet stocks in the late 1990s, and then blame forces beyond their control when the bubble pops or the strategy blows up and investors got whacked.
Let me offer two examples, in which I won’t name the managers or their funds because they and their investors have already suffered enough.
One mutual fund reported earning a return of more than 200 percent in 1999, the peak of the Internet bubble. Why the big gain? Because the managers were stock-picking geniuses. The following year, they lost double what the overall market did. Why? Because investors panicked. In other words, “Not my fault. We were victims.”
Another fund said that “management discipline” enabled it to show a 167 percent gain in 1999. But the fund then lost more than half its investors’ money in the second half of 2000. Why? Because of “the Fed’s deliberate actions to raise interest rates.” Not the managers’ fault. (And no, they’re not members of Trump’s family.)
I’ve got several other examples — but I think these are enough to make my point.
Now, to negative interest rates, which have spread like leprosy in Japan and many parts of Europe. A negative rate — a new, never-seen-before financial phenomenon brought on by central banks trying desperately to goose their economies by reducing interest rates — means that investors are in effect paying creditors for the right to lend them money.
Yes, that’s crazy. But it exists. If you buy the right — or wrong — European or Japanese government security, you pay more for it than the sum of all the interest that you’ll collect during the security’s lifetime and the principal that you’ll get back when the security comes due.
Because rates keep falling, people buying these absurd securities at absurdly high prices keep making money because the prices of the securities keep rising and getting even more absurd. Those continually rising prices are a major reason that governments are getting away with issuing this garbage.
In effect, the government is getting paid by lenders for the right to borrow their money, which is a fabulous deal for taxpayers — at least in the short run.
I don’t think neg-rate commercial loans exist — but hey, you never know.
It then occurred to me that Trump, who’s pushing endlessly for lower U.S. interest rates and might well love to see the United States have negative rates, would have loved to have negative borrowing rates during his days as a real estate developer.
As many people have forgotten, Trump projects and companies had six Chapter 11 bankruptcies, plus numerous other defaults and creditor takeovers.
I can see it now: a perfect negative-rate deal for Trump and other overborrowers. You get paid by a lender to let it lend you money. Then if it’s inconvenient to pay off the loan when it comes due, you default.
Wouldn’t that be great? All gain, no blame.
Last week, I wrote about the madness of a 2.1 percent 100-year bond issued by the Austrian government at face value in 2017 trading at 170 percent of face in early August.
Guess what? I’d have been better off buying the bond than writing about it. When last I looked, the bond’s price was 194. If it goes up another dozen points or so, I think it becomes a negative-yielder. Who’dathunkit? Certainly not me.