“Rates probably won’t rise until almost no one on earth is expecting them to. When that happens, it will hurt,” blogs Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal. Underscoring the strange financial climate where bonds are paying near nothing and stocks have risen to all-time highs, Zweig points out that we’ve been here before. Inflation-adjusted yields on Treasury bills, he says, have been negative 18 out of the 27 years between 1933 and 1959. In the 1940s and 1970, negative rates were common worldwide.
What’s different now, according to Thomas Coleman of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, is that “we have negative real rates without high and unexpected inflation.” In other words, explains Zweig, paltry bond earnings are “the deliberate result of central-bank policies that have failed to produce inflation.” Zweig contends that the current state of affairs will lead many investors to take “reckless” risks in their quest for income, and that keeping a level head is the wisest course.
That said, bonds are still a “powerful hedge against declines in the stock market,” asserts Vanguard investment strategist Fran Kinniry, noting that Treasury bonds rose 1% when the Brexit vote led to a near 4% dip in U.S. stocks. “Investing,” Kinniry says, “is always a partnership between you and the markets. But now you’re going to have to be the majority partner.”
Zweig boils it down to a straightforward (if not simple) strategy of lowering your expectations: “In this weird world, if you want to have more money, you will need to save a lot more money.”