A $100 Billion Fund Manager Lists His Fears as Sweden Hits Zero

(Bloomberg) --

Tony Persson helps manage about $100 billion at one of Sweden’s biggest pension funds. Unlike many of his peers across Europe, he operates in a country that’s just taken the historic step of quitting negative interest rates.

But it turns out that going from subzero to zero is no magic bullet.

Zero is “better” than subzero, said Persson, who oversees fixed-income and currency investments at Alecta in Stockholm. But for the pension industry, “the challenges remain undiminished,” he said.

Persson is anticipating a long, slow march toward more normal interest rates. The real test will come when central banks stop buying government bonds, and “reinstate market pricing,” he said in an interview in Stockholm.

The Riksbank, which ended negative rates before reaching its inflation target, still intends to buy government bonds until the end of 2020. It, like the European Central Bank, is clinging on to so-called quantitative easing to ensure that long-term rates are low.

Persson says the “theme in the coming years” will be how his industry copes when central banks no longer prop up government bond markets across much of the rich world.

“Central banks will step back and private capital will need to fill the void,” he said. “Just as we were pushed out,” pension funds will be “expected to step in again.”

Pension funds have emerged as one of the main casualties of negative rates, as the policy undermines the value of saving. That’s led to calls from some of Europe’s biggest funds to help an industry on which the region’s aging population relies.

Persson isn’t just worried about potential jolts to the government bond market. He says corporate debt markets are also showing some unhealthy signs after years of ultra-low interest rates.

“That’s something I’m monitoring closely right now. I don’t want to see a strong credit growth at this late stage of the cycle,” he said.

To survive negative interest rates, Alecta and other funds have been turning to riskier, less liquid assets. Persson says his fund has ditched many of the most expensive government bonds. Instead, he’s bought government-guaranteed credits and stepped up lending to regions and municipalities.

One strategy that really paid off was buying up bonds issued by countries that needed bailouts during Europe’s debt crisis, Persson said.

Given the ECB’s 2012 pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro, it was clear that Spanish and Irish bonds were “obviously going to be a great investment,” he said. “We were one of the largest investors during that period, and that was a very successful strategy.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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