“The world has much to fear,” James Grant declares in a recent issue of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, “However, it seems to us, not the least of these perils are the alleged safe havens themselves.” Therefore, says Grant, “In general, this publication is bullish on things certified to be unsafe, bearish on things certified to be safe (assuming always that the respective prices are right).”
Specifically, Grant is bearish on one of the very “safest” of safe things: highly rated government bonds. “The times may be troubled (they often are),” he says, “and people may be desperate (someone usually is), but that doesn’t mean that low-yielding sovereign debt is the last word in safety and soundness.”
Grant does not assert that top-tier government bonds are necessarily unsafe, merely that they are undesirable…and potentially unsafe. At current yields, many government bonds offer what Grant has termed, “return-free risk.”
As the nearby chart clearly shows, the yields provided by the marquee AAA government bonds of the US, Germany, Switzerland and the UK have been in a freefall for several years. As recently as four years ago, a 5-year bond from the Swiss government yielded about 3%. Today, the 5-year yield is negative! That’s right; an investor must pay the Swiss government for the privilege of lending it money.
The 5-year yields provided by the other AAA issuers in this chart are at least positive, but just barely. All of them yield less than one percent per year.