The American financial establishment has an incredible ability to celebrate the inconsequential while ignoring the vital. Last week, while the Wall Street Journal pondered how the Fed may set interest rates three to four years in the future (an exercise that David Stockman rightly compared to debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin), the media almost completely ignored one of the most chilling pieces of financial news that I have ever seen. According to a small story in the Financial Times, some Fed officials would like to require retail owners of bond mutual funds to pay an "exit fee" to liquidate their positions. Come again? That such a policy would even be considered tells us much about the current fragility of our bond market and the collective insanity of layers of unnecessary regulation.
Recently Federal Reserve Governor Jeremy Stein commented on what has become obvious to many investors: the bond market has become too large and too illiquid, exposing the market to crisis and seizure if a large portion of investors decide to sell at the same time. Such an event occurred back in 2008 when the money market funds briefly fell below par and "broke the buck." To prevent such a possibility in the larger bond market, the Fed wants to slow any potential panic selling by constructing a barrier to exit. Since it would be outrageous and unconstitutional to pass a law banning sales (although in this day and age anything may be possible) an exit fee could provide the brakes the Fed is looking for. Fortunately, the rules governing securities transactions are not imposed by the Fed, but are the prerogative of the SEC. (But if you are like me, that fact offers little in the way of relief.) How did it come to this?
For the past six years it has been the policy of the Federal Reserve to push down interest rates to record low levels. In has done so effectively on the "short end of the curve" by setting the Fed Funds rate at zero since 2008. The resulting lack of yield in short term debt has encouraged more investors to buy riskier long-term debt. This has created a bull market in long bonds. The Fed's QE purchases have extended the run beyond what even most bond bulls had anticipated, making "risk-free" long-term debt far too attractive for far too long. As a result, mutual fund holdings of long term government and corporate debt have swelled to more $7 trillion as of the end of 2013, a whopping 109% increase from 2008 levels.