William Henry Jackson Tamasopo River Canyon, San Luis Potosi, Mexico 1890
About a month ago, Japan’s giant GPIF pension fund announced it had started doing in Q4 2014, what PM Abe had long asked it to: shift a large(r) portion of its investment portfolio from bonds to stocks. No more safe assets for the world’s largest pension fund, or a lot less at least, but risky ones. For Abe this promises the advantage of an economy that looks healthier than it actually is, while for the fund it means that the returns on its investments could be higher than if it stuck to safe assets. Not a word about the dangers, not a word about why pensions funds were, for about as long as they’ve been in existence, obliged by law to only hold AAA assets. This is from February 27:
Japan’s trillion-dollar public pension fund bought nearly $15 billion worth of domestic shares in the fourth quarter, more than expected, while slashing its Japanese government bond holdings as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prods the nation to take more risks to spur economic growth. The bullishness toward Japanese equities by the Government Pension Investment Fund, the world’s biggest pension fund, boosted hopes in the Tokyo market that stocks have momentum to add to their 15-year highs.
GPIF said on Friday its holdings of domestic shares rose to 19.8% of its portfolio by the end of December from 17.79% at the end of September. Yen bonds fell to 43.13% from 48.39%. Adjusting for factors such as the Tokyo stock market’s rise of roughly 8% during the quarter, GPIF bought a net 1.7 trillion yen ($14 billion) of stocks in the period, reckons strategist Shingo Kumazawa at Daiwa Securities. GPIF’s investment changes are closely watched by markets, as a 1 percentage-point shift in the 137 trillion yen ($1.15 trillion) fund means a transfer of about $10 billion.
What economic growth can there be in shifting from safe assets to riskier ones? Isn’t economic growth in the end exclusively a measure of how productive an economy is? And isn’t simply shifting your money around between assets a clear and pure attempt to fake growth numbers? Moreover, doesn’t Abe himself indicate very clearly that there is risk involved here, that there is now a greater risk that pension money will have to take losses on its investments? Isn’t he simply stating out loud that he wants to turn the entire nation into a casino? And that without this additional risk there will and can be no economic growth?
It’s time for the Japanese to get seriously scared now. Like many other countries, Japan – and its political class – creates a false image of enduring prosperity by letting its central bank increasingly buy up ever more of its sovereign bonds. It’s a total sleight of hand, there is nothing left that’s real. There’s no there there. This is of course the same as what happens in Europe.
And it’s precisely because central banks buy up all these bonds, that their yields scrape the gutter. It’s a blueprint for killing off the last bit of actual functionality in an economy. All you have from there on in is fake, an artificial boosting of bond prices aimed at creating the appearance of a functioning economy, which can by definition only be a mirage. That it will temporarily boost stock prices in an equally artificial way only goes to confirm that.
But, evidently, artificially high stock prices carry a much greater risk than ones that are based on a free and functioning market and economy. So not only is there a shift from safe to risky assets, there’ s a double whammy in the fact that these large scale purchases boost stocks without having anything to do with the economic performance of the companies whose stocks are bought.
It may make Shinzo Abe look better for a fleeting moment, but for Japan’s pensioners it’s the worst option that is available.
And then last week, a group of smaller rising sun pension funds said they’d follow the example. The more the merrier….
Three Japanese public pension funds with a combined $250 billion in assets will follow the mammoth Government Pension Investment Fund and shift more of their investments out of government bonds and into stocks. The three funds and the trillion-dollar Government Pension Investment Fund, the world’s biggest pension fund, will announce on Friday a common model portfolio in line with asset allocations recently decided by the GPIF, the people told Reuters. Assuming, as expected, the three smaller mutual-aid pensions adopt the portfolio, that would mean shifting some 3.58 trillion yen ($30 billion) into Japanese stocks, a Reuters calculation shows.
The GPIF in October slashed its targeted holdings of low-yielding government bonds and doubled its target for stocks, as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to boost the economy and promote risk-taking. GPIF in October slashed its targeted holdings of low-yielding government bonds and doubled its target for stocks, as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to jolt Japan out of two decades of deflation and fitful growth and promote risk-taking. The shift to riskier investments by the 137 trillion yen ($1.1 trillion) GPIF has helped drive Tokyo Stocks to 15-year highs this week because of the fund’s size and because it is seen as a bellwether for other big Japanese institutional investors. The new model portfolio, part of a government plan to consolidate Japan’s pension system in October, will match the new GPIF allocations of 35% in Japanese government bonds, 25% in domestic stocks, 15% in foreign bonds and 25% in foreign stocks, the sources said.
Half of Japan’s pension money will be in stocks, domestic and foreign. And what do you think that means if and when there’s a major stock market crash – which is historically inevitable?
Never give a government any say in either your central bank or your pension fund. That’s a very sound lesson that unfortunately everyone seems to have forgotten. At their own peril. Sure, they’re looking like geniuses right now: look, the Nikkei is at a 15-year high! But it’s what’s going to come after that counts. For who believes that this situation can last forever? Or who, for that matter, believes that this head fake will the driver for real economic growth?
Sure enough, now the rest of the region has to follow suit: every pension fund in the region becomes a daredevil. But we know, don’t we, what the rising greenback is about to do to emerging markets that have huge amounts of dollar-denominated debt in their vaults. One thing this won’t do is boost stock markets; it will instead put many companies into either very bad financial straits or outright bankruptcy. And then you will have their pension funds holding a lot of empty bags. From the point of view of major banks this is ideal: this is how they get there hands on everyone’s pension funds, which I once labeled the last remaining store of real wealth.
The biggest state pension funds in Thailand and the Philippines are shifting money from bonds to stocks, which could push up the cost of government stimulus programs. The Social Security Office and Government Service Insurance System said they’re increasing holdings of shares, while the head of Indonesia’s BPJS Ketenagakerjaan said he sees the nation’s stock index rising 14% by year-end. Rupiah, baht and peso notes have lost money since the end of January, after handing investors respective returns of 13%, 9.9% and 6.6% last year, Bloomberg indexes show.
“There has been frustration among domestic institutional investors about the falling returns on bonds,” Win Phromphaet, Social Security Office’s head of investment in Bangkok, said in a March 19 interview. “Large investors including SSO must quickly expand our investments in other riskier assets.” Appetite for sovereign debt is cooling just as Southeast Asian governments speed up construction plans in response to slowing growth in China and stuttering recoveries in Europe and Japan.
If Thailand and the Philippines, and many other nations in the region, want to speed up their infrastructure projects, their central banks, too, will have to buy up the vast majority of their sovereign bonds. They too will have to fake it. It’s fatally contagious.
And then a few days ago this passed by on the radar. The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (Norway’s) joins the club. This may seem completely normal to some, either because they don’t give it much thought or because they work in this sort of field (people adopt strange ways of thinking), but for me, it just raises bright red alerts.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is looking at Tokyo or Singapore for its first real estate investment in Asia as the investor expands globally. “That’s where we think we’ll start,” Karsten Kallevig, the chief investment officer of real estate at the Oslo-based fund, said in an interview after a speech in the Norwegian capital. “If we’re really successful there, then maybe we can add a third and a fourth and a fifth city at some point.” After in 2010 being allowed to expand into the property market, Norway’s $870 billion wealth fund has amassed about $18 billion in real estate holdings. It has snapped up properties in major cities such as New York, London and Paris, with a main focus on office properties. The fund is focusing on specific markets rather than sectors, Kallevig said.
“When we say Singapore and Tokyo, we mean the better parts” of those cities, he said. “My guess is office properties will be the main component, because that’s what’s for sale in those parts of town. There aren’t many shopping malls in the center of Tokyo or the center of Singapore.” Just as in earlier purchases in Europe and the U.S, the fund will also buy properties with partners, Kallevig said. The next trip in that area will probably be in the second quarter, he said. The property portfolio was 141 billion kroner ($17.5 billion), or 2.2% of the fund at the end of last year, compared to 1% at the end of 2013. Real estate returned 10.4% in 2014.
Kallevig has said he seeks to invest 1% of the fund in real estate each year until the 5% goal is met. The Government Pension Fund Global returned 7.6% in 2014, its smallest gain since 2011. The fund has warned it expects diminished returns amid record low, and even negative, yields in key government bond markets combined with slow growth in developed markets. Norway generates money for the fund from taxes on oil and gas, ownership of petroleum fields and dividends from its 67% stake in Statoil ASA. Norway is western Europe’s biggest oil and gas producer. The fund invests abroad to avoid stoking domestic inflation.
Hmm. “The fund invests abroad to avoid stoking domestic inflation.” Really? In today’s zero percent world? Sounds curious. It may have been a valid objective in the past, but not today. What this is really about is chasing yield, just as in the pension fund case. Still, that was not the first thought that came to mind when reading this. That was: If Tokyo real estate were such a great investment, wouldn’t you think that Japan’s own pension funds would be buying? They’re chasing yield like crazy, but they would miss out on their own real estate assets which Norway’s fund thinks are such a great asset?
All this is not just the financial world on steroids, which is bad enough when you talk about someone’s pension, it’s the wrong kind of steroids too. The lethal kind. But then, without steroids the entire economic facade would be exposed as the zombie it has become. It’s insane for pension funds to buy stocks on a wholesale scale, because that distorts an economy beyond the point of recognition, it screws with price discovery like just about nothing else can, and it puts the pensioners’ money in grave danger. It’s equally insane for Norway to buy up property halfway around the world which giant domestic investors leave by the wayside.
Investing your pension money, and your wealth fund, into your own economy is such a more solid and soundproof thing to do, it shouldn’t even be an item up for discussion. Taking that money out of the foundation of an economy, and shifting it either to assets abroad, or into the casino all stock markets must of necessity be in the end, means abandoning and undermining the future strength of your own economy for the sake of a bit more yield today. At home, you could create infrastructure and jobs and resilience with it. All that is gone when you move it either abroad or into a casino.
Still, nothing really functions anymore the way it should. And that’s how you wind up in situations such as these. Central banks monetize debt to such extents, you could swear there’s a race going on. They do this to hide from view the debts that are out there, and that if exposed would make everything look much bleaker than it looks with various QEs and other steroid-based stimuli. In doing this, central banks kill bond yields, which chases pension- and wealth funds out of safe assets. A surefire way to create short term gains and long term losses, if not disaster. For the masses, that is. No losses in store for the few. They get only gains.