The Collapse in Rates That’s Causing Fits

Just in case you think these tumbling interest rates are good for housing, think again. Logic might say that, but reality proves just the opposite. Indeed, the latest swoon in Treasury yields reminds us that just because loans are getting cheaper doesn’t mean folks are taking out loans, or getting approved for those loans. They’re not, or at least not as many are.

The problem is the weak economy, or at best, the dicey recovery. This country’s advance has been slow and steady, but almost too slow and not always that steady. Here’s why all this is worrying economists – if near-zero-percent interest rates aren’t triggering much borrowing – or buying – what will? That’s the double-edged sword nature of appealingly low borrowing costs – those prospectively taking them on start wondering why they’re so low. It’s like passing by a sales item repeatedly marked down at a store – pretty soon customers suspect there’s something wrong with the item.

We know a big reason for Treasury yields’ decline in this country is growing apprehension about the pace of the recovery in this country. That’s a given. Here’s what’s not – it’s not just this country. Germany also has seen its bond yields tumble. German 10-year “bunds,” which remain the benchmark for eurozone borrowing, are at or near one-year lows. So, just like our tumbling 10-year rates, there’s a consensus building this is more global in nature. To paraphrase economist Robert Brusca – a feeling across the world all might not be right with the world – or the recovery as billed in the world.

Germany itself offered some damning proof – unemployment there just showing its strongest monthly jump in more than five years to just shy of 3 million jobless on a seasonally-adjusted basis. That’s not to say Germany’s going into a recession – far from it, as it remains Europe’s strongest economy – but it does explain the angst among eurozone members, increasingly concerned there’s something akin to a “rate-collapse-contagion” going on. From Britain to France and Turkey to Greece – bond prices are up and yields are down. Stocks? Not so much. That’s a growing collective global bet on fixed-income rather than traditional equity investments.

To be sure, that’s not all bad. Greece and Italy now have to fork over less in interest payments to keep investors happy, so the better for those governments, and the cheaper their costs. The problem is why globally investors are more drawn to these traditionally safe investments than stocks, no matter the country. It’s all the more weird when you consider most global stock markets are coming off one of their best years in nearly a decade. Here in the U.S., the major stock market averages have more than doubled from their post-meltdown-lows; even now, the Dow and S&P hover near all-time records, even as we revisit all-time lows in interest rates.

Most economists say that is unsustainable. Either stocks prevail or bonds prevail. But they both can’t prevail together for long. That’s why they fear something bigger going on – a major mood shift among global investors, period; not a thirst for putting cheap money to work – but preserving whatever money investors have. As one stock strategist put it to me, it’s about preserving and persevering, not gung-ho gambling.

So the better part of valor seems to be keeping money tight, which could explain housing slowing, construction ebbing, and mortgage commitments teetering. In what should be an ideal environment to take on risk, investors the world over are saying they’re averse to that risk. Don’t follow their words. Follow their money. What you’ll discover is that you’ll be following it to right under a lot of mattresses. That’s how conservative they’re getting, and how nervous they’re getting, too.

That is risky, and that is worrisome. And for the Federal Reserve it presents yet another credit conundrum: How do you get the markets off their Fed fix if the impetus for an underlying recovery isn’t in the cards? All this low-rate news means central banks everywhere are going to have to be very careful taking the punch bowl away so fast – if they dare continue attempting doing so – at all.

Stay tuned, this stands to get very interesting.