Central banks, guardians of the world’s $11 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, are buying stocks in record amounts as falling bond yields push even risk-averse investors toward equities.
In a survey of 60 central bankers this month by Central Banking Publications and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, 23 percent said they own shares or plan to buy them. The Bank of Japan, holder of the second-biggest reserves, said April 4 it will more than double investments in equity exchange-traded funds to 3.5 trillion yen ($35.2 billion) by 2014. The Bank of Israel bought stocks for the first time last year while the Swiss National Bank and the Czech National Bank have boosted their holdings to at least 10 percent of reserves.
“In the last year or so, I have spoken with 103 central banks on diversification,” Gary Smith, London-based global head of official institutions at BNP Paribas Investment Partners, which oversees about $649 billion, said in a phone interview. “If reserves are growing, so are diversification pressures. Equities are not for every bank tomorrow, but more are continuing down this path.”
Managers of banks’ assets are looking for alternatives to holding government bonds after efforts to stimulate growth from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of England helped send yields near to record lows. Central banks’ foreign-exchange holdings have increased by about $8.5 trillion globally in the past decade, exceeding levels needed for day-to-day currency administration.
Central banks typically hold assets such as government debt that can be sold easily if funds are needed to counter a move in their currency. The reliance on fixed-income securities at a time when bond yields are below inflation in many countries risks allowing to the value of reserves to decline.
While consumer prices are rising at a 1.5 percent annual rate in the U.S. and 1.7 percent in the euro area, the average yield to maturity of securities in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Broad Market Sovereign Plus Index fell to an all-time low of 1.34 percent on April 23, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The SNB allocated 82 percent of its 438 billion Swiss francs ($463 billion) in reserves to government bonds in the fourth quarter, according to data on its website. Of those securities, 78 percent had the top, AAA credit grade and 17 percent were rated AA.
The survey of 60 central bankers, overseeing a combined $6.7 trillion, found that low bond returns had prompted almost half to take on more risk. Fourteen said they had already invested in equities or would do so within five years. Those conducting the annual poll had never before asked that question.
“I definitely see other central banks doing or considering equities,” said Jan Schmidt, the executive director of risk management at the Czech National Bank in Prague, which has built up stocks to 10 percent of its $44.4 billion in reserves since 2008. Even so, the risks of owning shares are the same as ever, he said in e-mailed comments.
Currency reserves among the world’s central banks climbed by $734 billion in 2012 to a record $10.9 trillion, according to data from the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. That’s about 20 percent of the $55 trillion market value of global stocks, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Central banks’ purchases of shares show how the “hunger for yield” is changing the behavior of even the most conservative investors, according to Matthew Beesley, head of equities at Henderson Global Investors Holding Ltd. in London, which oversees about $100 billion.
“Equities are the last asset class standing,” Beesley said in a phone interview on April 18. “When you have dividend yields in excess of bond yields, it’s a very logical move.”
Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index pay 2.2 percent of their combined share price as dividends, compared with the 1.69 percent yield on 10-year Treasuries, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The S&P 500 closed at an all-time high of 1,593.37 on April 11 and is up 11 percent this year though April 23. Investors have earned 0.7 percent owning U.S. government debt repayable in one year or more, according to Bank of America Corp. bond indexes.
Stocks are also cheap compared with government bonds using a valuation method favored by former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan that compares earnings with interest payments. Companies in the S&P 500 generate profit equal to 6.4 percent of their share prices, about 4.7 percentage points more than yields on 10-year Treasuries, Bloomberg data show.
Even so, 70 percent of the central bankers in the survey indicated that equities are “beyond the pale.”
The growth in reserves has slowed as a strengthening dollar puts less pressure on policy makers to intervene by selling their currencies, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Central-bank assets grew by 1 percent last quarter, the smallest gain since the same period of 2012, as Taiwan’s reserves fell by more than $1 billion to $402 billion and Singapore’s dropped by a similar amount to $258 billion.
Some central banks, including the Fed in Washington and the Bank of England in London, have no mandate to buy stocks directly. The Fed has $42.6 billion in reserves and the Bank of England controls $65.1 billion, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Other banks are deterred by price swings in equities that can be larger than for other securities. The MSCI All-Country World Index fell 3.3 percent in five days after rising to a 4 1/2-year high on April 11 and tumbled 11 percent in the five weeks through June 12 last year. The gauge of global stocks rose 0.6 percent at 8:33 a.m. in New York today.
Among central banks that are buying shares, the SNB has allocated about 12 percent of assets to passive funds tracking equity indexes. The Bank of Israel has spent about 3 percent of its $77 billion reserves on U.S. stocks.
In Asia, the BOJ announced plans to put more of its $1.2 trillion of reserves into exchange-traded funds this month as it doubled its stimulus program to help reflate the economy. The Bank of Korea began buying Chinese shares last year, increasing its equity investments to about $18.6 billion, or 5.7 percent of the total, up from 5.4 percent in 2011. China’s foreign-exchange regulator said in January it has sought “innovative use” of its $3.4 trillion in assets, the world’s biggest reserves, without specifying a strategy for investing in shares.
“Central banks are looking at assets that I wouldn’t have necessarily expected in times gone by,” said Paul Price, London-based head of international distribution and client relations at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, which oversees about $338 billion. Low yields and “movement in the ratings around certain sovereigns is forcing central banks to rethink how they pursue yield and how equities are viewed in that context,” he said.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury reached a record low of 1.38 percent in July. The same month, German government rates of similar maturity declined to 1.13 percent. France’s 10-year yield retreated to 1.7 percent on April 23, the lowest level since Bloomberg began tracking the data in 1990.
“Government bonds remain a fundamental pillar of central-bank asset allocation, but there is scope to go into other asset classes to help provide a higher return,” said Massimiliano Castelli, head of strategy at UBS Asset Management’s global sovereign markets unit in London. “We are in a lot of discussions with several or so institutions who are considering such a step.”