Safe heavens and investment hells

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23 May 2012
Cubillas Ding
Reported through the Wall Street Journal yesterday, the Germans have issued a bond (a German treasury note known as Schatz) with a zero coupon. This is unprecedented in some ways. What it says is that investors are so desperate that they are willing to forfeit any yield for the privilege of parking their funds for two years in what they see as safe assets, as the escalating debt crisis in the euro zone continue to play out in contagious and unpredictable ways. What's driving demand? Between insurance companies and pension funds that offer products with 'guaranteed returns' or conservative fund portfolios that place an emphasis on value preservation; financial institutions hunting for sources of liquid, high quality collateral for regulatory purposes, repo and OTC derivative markets; and CCPs demanding more stringent margin requirements, one can expect this race to compete for a share of acceptable safe assets to grow. Investors that have been burned over the past few years are saying capital preservation remains a paramount objective for them. For me, financial markets are so dislocated at the moment that perceived "safe havens" are elevated to "safe heavens" by investors in their flight to safety, whilst distressed entities/sovereigns are condemned to investment hell (so to speak). However, such polarization between the two extremes of 'elevated heavens' and "investment hells" perhaps point to me that the market is running out of options for safe assets. It also begs the question of whether this is an illusion that is too good to be true. At the moment, not even favored safe haven assets such as gold, investment grade government and corporate debt, and covered bonds are necessarily immune to the shaking that is rippling through the markets. In this instance of German treasuries, zero yields in theory means that it is completely ‘risk free’, for which there is no such thing, not in terms of absolute safety anyway. Germany may be the strongest economy in the Eurozone but contagion effects are difficult to predict. There are a few points of caution here: First, the growing concentration of capital flows into these perceived safe assets is in itself a risk and (arguably) creates a bubble effect. Secondly, the polarization dynamic between the haves and have nots create large imbalances that will amplify structural volatility. Thirdly, current (and emerging) regulatory regimes like Basel 3, Solvency 2 and Dodd Frank/central clearing are almost, in tandem, sucking in and 'consuming' safe assets. It creates a backdrop for these effects to continue. Is this an unintended consequence that we do not want or need in the longer term?

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