By WALLACE WITKOWSKI at Marketwatch
Years of low interest rates have gradually created a horde of zombie corporations, and central banks need to realize that near-zero rates aren’t a cure for what ails the economy, wrote Bill Gross in his most recent letter to investors.
“Because BB-, B-, and in some cases CCC-rated companies have been able to borrow at less than 5%, a host of zombie and future zombie corporations now roam the real economy,” the bond guru and portfolio manager at Janus Capital said in his August letter.
Even for higher-rated companies, cheap debt is fueling a boom in stock buybacks rather than encouraging investment and job creation, Gross said, noting that buybacks are running at an annual rate of $1.02 trillion, well above the 2007 high of $863 billion.
As a result, Gross said the mechanism of creative destruction, “the supposed heart of capitalistic progress,” has been neutralized, with old or ailing companies on life support and new investment stifled.
“Low interest rates are not the cure — they are part of the problem,” Gross wrote.
What’s the formula for finishing off the zombies and reintroducing the heart of capitalistic progress back into the economy? Gross looks to the Bank for International Settlements — “the central banks’ central banker” — for guidance.
In its most recent annual report, the BIS said that persistently ultralow interest rates “can inflict serious damage on the financial system” and “sap banks’ interest margins and returns from maturity transformation, potentially weakening balance sheets and the credit supply.”
In addition, the BIS said ultralow rates undermine the profitability and solvency of insurance companies and pension funds, and “can cause pervasive mispricing in financial markets.”
Gross expresses hope that the Federal Reserve will lead the way in weaning the patient off a yearslong treatment and come up with more creative ideas regarding monetary policy.
While many believe the Fed will introduce its first rate hike in September, and Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has said the economy “cannot only tolerate but needs higher rates,” the central bank is still leaving its options open with regard to the timing.
“It’s monetary policy where the battleground for evolutionary ideas is taking place, as the Fed begins to recognize that 0% interest rates increasingly have negative, as well as positive, consequences,” according to Gross.