The idea of a shortage of ‘safe’ assets is a favorite of mine, dating back from 2011 when I first wrote about a crunch in triple-A rated assets for FT Alphaville to more recent things such as this piece for Bloomberg, and sometimes even on this blog. So it was a pleasure to discover, courtesy of Simon Hinrichsen (a former Odd Lots guest whom you should definitely follow on Twitter), a new paper on exactly this topic from Ricardo Caballero, Emmanuel Farhi and Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas. Read it for rather glorious sentences such as this one: “What is relatively new, relative to post–World War II history, is that the global economy is going through a complex structural period where the standard valuation adjustment for safe assets— via interest rate changes—have run out their course.”
Here’s a summary I wrote as part of our morning ‘Five Things’ newsletter, which you can sign-up for here.
“Want a stylized prism through which to understand almost everything that’s happened in the global financial system over the past two decades? Then take a look at this paper on “The Safe Assets Shortage Conundrum.” In it, the authors argue that savers’ desire to put their money in a reliable instrument has created a need for ‘safe’ assets that the financial system has had various degrees of success in fulfilling. In the early 2000s, the private sector tried to fill that need by creating triple A-rated bonds out of subprime mortgages. We know what happened next. After that, safe financial assets became largely the purview of governments via the bonds they sell – first the eurozone (which then experienced its own ratings problems) and then the U.S. Supply has ultimately failed to keep up with demand, however, mostly because slower growth has meant ‘safe’ governments in the developed world have been unable to generate assets at a fast enough pace to satisfy savings from emerging markets. It’s a state of affairs that will probably stick around for a long time, and one that helps explain why bond yields continue to plumb new lows, seemingly without rhyme or reason. But seriously, go read the whole thing.”
A side note: I do wonder what might constitute safe in the current environment. Yes, government debt is the clear winner here but corporate debt issued by cash-heavy, investment grade, national champion corporates – think Apple – can’t be far behind…