Markets

Deja Vu: The Fed's Real 'Policy Error' Was to Encourage Years of Speculation

Over the past several years, yield-seeking investors, starved for any "pickup" in yield over Treasury securities, have piled into the junk debt and leveraged loan markets. Just as equity valuations have been driven to the second most extreme point in history (and the single most extreme point in history for the median stock, where valuations are well-beyond 2000 levels), risk premiums on speculative debt were compressed to razor-thin levels. By 2014, the spread between junk bond yields and Treasury yields had fallen to less than 2.4%. Since then, years of expected "risk premiums" have been erased by capital losses, and defaults haven't even spiked yet (they do so with a lag).

From an economic standpoint, the unfortunate fact is that the proceeds from aggressive issuance of junk debt and leveraged loans in the past few years were channeled into speculation. Excess capacity in energy production was expanded at the cyclical peak in oil prices , and heavy stock buybacks were executed at obscene equity valuations. The end result will be unintended wealth transfers and deadweight losses for the economy. Since the late 1990s, the Federal Reserve has actively encouraged the channeling of trillions of dollars of savings into speculation. Recurring cycles of malinvestment and crisis have progressively weakened the resilience and long-term growth prospects of the U.S. economy.

Investors repeatedly forget that reaching for yield in speculative securities only works if capital losses don't wipe out the "pickup" in yield. Since mid-2014, we've emphasized the increasing deterioration in market internals and credit spreads, noting that this deterioration has historically been a reliable signal of a shift from risk seeking to risk aversion by investors. This risk aversion is now accelerating. Last week, a number of high-yield bond funds placed delays on redemptions in order to give them time to liquidate holdings into a collapsing market. When a problem is specific to a particular fund, orderly liquidation can protect investors. But in this case, the need for liquidation isn't specific to those particular funds - it's driven by selling pressure and illiquidity in the junk debt market as a whole. As a result, these "redemption holds" risk contributing to general panic across the entire high-yield market.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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