The unbearable pain of 0.01%

By Felix Salmon
November 19, 2009
Bill Gross isn't earning much interest on his cash: in fact, he's only earning 0.01%. Tell us, Bill, what's an appropriate metaphor to explain how it feels to earn such a low interest rate?

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Bill Gross isn’t earning much interest on his cash: in fact, he’s only earning 0.01%. Tell us, Bill, what’s an appropriate metaphor to explain how it feels to earn such a low interest rate?

My point is to recognize, and to hope that you recognize, that an effective zero percent interest rate, as a price for hiding in a foxhole, is prohibitive. Like the American doughboys near France’s Maginot line in WWII – slumping day after day in a muddy, rat-infested pit – when the battalion commander finally blew his whistle to charge the enemy lines, it probably was accompanied by some sense of relief; anything, anything but this! Anything but .01%!

I’m not sure this is entirely fair. Think of the camraderie in those muddy foxholes! Think of all those meaningful religious conversions! Frankly, earning 0.01% interest on your money-market funds is much worse than that!

Or, you know, it could be a sign of how incredibly short memories are. A year ago — even six months ago — people thought that losing 30% or 40% or 50% of your money constituted something extremely painful. Now, it seems, making a small amount of money is analogous to fighting in the bloodiest war of all time.

Kid Dynamite today translates Gross’s column into Sensible, explaining that opportunities paying say 5% annualized become a lot more attractive when rates are at zero than they are when you can get 5% just by investing in Treasury bills. Hence assets yielding anything at all — even stocks — have become pretty popular of late, accounting for the impressive price rise since March. Still, he concludes, “this can only end one way… badly”. People aren’t asking that yields compensate for risk any more, they’re just asking that they pay more than nothing. Which is probably not the smartest manner of allocating capital ever invented.

As for Gross, his best advice is to buy utility stocks:

Pricewise, they’re only halfway between their 2007 peaks and 2008 lows – 25% off the top, 25% from the bottom.

Is that the new Goldilocks Scenario, I wonder?

Update: The quote above — which mangles history in unspeakable ways, as many commenters noted — has been changed on the Pimco website, which now talks about “the American doughboys near France’s future Maginot line in WWI”.

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