Yields on government bonds and high-grade corporate bonds are very low right now.
Normally, Irwin writes, that would be a sign that investors expect the world economy to be cool enough to keep prices low for years to come.
Today, Irwin says, low yields on bonds may simply reflect the reality that regulators are pushing insurance companies, pension funds and banks to minimize investment risk by holding government bonds and other securities that regulators view as being very safe.
Meanwhile, Irwin says, governments have been trying to control spending and avoid issuing large amounts of new debt.
“The good news is that most of the drop in long-term interest rates is being driven by things that have little to do with the underlying strength of economic growth,” Irwin says.
I think the bad news here that Irwin overlooks is that regulators have been encouraging insurers and other financial institutions around the world to march in lockstep.
Some investment bankers at a long-term care insurance session I attended a few years ago tried to tempt attendees to consider investing a little fun money in wild assets such as … government bonds from other countries, or domestic infrastructure bonds. Some of the long-term care insurance issuer executives there were interested, but many were skeptical of the idea of moving toward assets even slightly riskier than the assets they preferred during the grimmest days in 2008 and 2009.
Not necessarily safe
On the one hand, of course, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Insurers that invest too much in venture capital funds or wheat futures may face an unusually high risk of meeting with insurance department financial examiners in the near future.
On the other hand, one of the basic principles of investing is that diversifying assets is important. In the case of banks and insurance companies, regulators have subverted that principle by pushing all of the companies to invest as if they were part of one giant financial services organism.