And yet they keep buying them. Perhaps all of this so-called "risk off" behavior has less to do with rational pessimism about growth prospects than with simple petulance. Here is the context: free market fundamentalists have just seen the incineration of a key pillar of their worldview. The myth of the "bond vigilante" is busted: despite obscene debt ratios, U.S. and UK government debt pays negative real yields. At the same time, central banks are undertaking large scale intervention in the markets in an attempt to boost stock prices and discourage bond buying. The investors I talk to whine constantly about this, which they call "market distortion" and "financial repression". They make me think of a child's temper when a favorite toy is taken away.
For an example of an investor tantrum, read this Financial Times op-ed from Bill Gross, head of the world's largest bond fund, PIMCO:
Psst! Investors – do you wanna know a secret? Do you wanna know what Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi all share in common? They want your money!
They’ve wanted it for years now but you are resisting by holding on to it or investing it at negative interest rates in Switzerland, Germany and a growing number of other countries considered to be European Union havens. They want you to be less frugal and more risk-seeking. They want your money as a substitute for theirs in Spain, Italy and, of course, Greece, but they don’t mention that any more. The example would be too off-putting. “Investors,” they plead, “show us your money!”
It's hard to imagine anything Gross could have written that would have more thoroughly validated the charge of financier petulance.