Monthly Archives: June 2016

Pet business

TRILLIONS of dollars of consumer spending have, historically, depended on a few steps. A shopper learns about a product, considers whether to buy it, decides to do so, goes to a shop. If he likes it, he may buy it again. Marketers have long obsessed over each step, and consultants have written treatises on how to nudge people along. E-commerce is already changing the process, but now retailing gurus are imagining a future in which shopping becomes fully automatic.

The idea is that a combination of smart gadgets and predictive data analytics could decide exactly what goods are delivered when, to which household. The most advanced version might resemble Spotify, a music-streaming service, but for stuff. This future is inching closer, thanks to initiatives from Amazon, lots of startup firms and also from big consumer companies such as Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Buying experiments so far fall into two categories. The first is exploratory. A service helps a shopper try new things, choosing products on his or her behalf. Birchbox, founded in 2010, sends beauty samples to subscribers for $10 each month. Imitators have proliferated, offering everything from dog toys to trainers. MySubscriptionAddiction.com, which reviews these services in English-speaking countries, counts 998 new subscription boxes so far this year, up from 284 new ones in 2013. Retailers such as Walmart have followed suit with their own boxes. The scope for such services, however, may be limited. One third of those surveyed by MySubscriptionAddiction.com said they cancelled at least as many subscriptions as they added this year. Consumers, naturally, will delegate purchases to a third party only when they receive products they like. In future, firms that comb purchase histories and search data may be able to send more reliably pleasing product assortments. For now, a consumer who becomes an unwitting owner of toeless socks, which were included recently in a box called FabFitFun, may decline further offers.

The second category of automated consumption is more functional. A service automates the purchase of an item that is bought frequently. Nine years ago Amazon introduced a “Subscribe & Save” feature, offering consumers a discount for agreeing to buy certain goods regularly, such as Pampers nappies. Dollar Shave Club, a male-grooming-products firm, sells razors to subscribers directly, and P&G now has its own, similar service. It is also testing one for laundry detergent.

Amazon is going further. Last year it began selling so-called Dash buttons, designed to be placed around the house to order everyday products—one for Campbell’s soup, for instance, and another for Whiskas cat food (pictured). Investors see this as the first step in its bid fully to automate buying of daily necessities. Already, some manufacturers have integrated Amazon into their devices; General Electric, for example, offers washing machines that shop for their own detergent.

Such services have obvious appeal for Amazon and for big consumer brands. If a shopper automates the delivery of a particular item, the theory is that he is likely to be more loyal. For some brands, the buttons are working especially well: more than half of all the many Amazon orders for Maxwell House coffee in America, for example, are made through the Dash button. Amazon says that across America, an order from a Dash button is being placed more than twice each minute.

But neither Amazon nor the big product brands should celebrate a new era of shopping just yet. Amazon does not release comprehensive data on its automated services, but Slice Intelligence, a data firm in California, reported in March that fewer than half of those with Dash buttons had ever pressed them. One problem may be the e-commerce giant’s prices, which fluctuate often. Another report, by Salmon, a digital agency inside WPP, an advertising group, found that far more British consumers would prefer a smart device that ordered the cheapest item in a category to one that summoned up the same brand each time. That suggests that automated shopping, as it expands, might make life harder for big brands, not prop them up.

Who is scary

Political adviser to Bill Clinton, the former president, famously said that he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market so he could “intimidate everybody”. He was frustrated by the administration’s inability to push through an economic stimulus for fear of spooking investors and pushing bond yields higher.

More than 20 years later, the world looks very different. Many developed countries have been running budget deficits ever since the global financial crisis of 2008; their government debt-to-GDP ratios are far higher than they were in the early 1990s. Yet the bond market looks about as intimidating as a chihuahua in a handbag; in general, yields are close to historic lows.

In the 1990s “bond-market vigilantes” sold their holdings when they feared that countries were pursuing irresponsible fiscal or monetary policies. In Britain even fear of a “hard Brexit” is only now being reflected in rising gilt yields—and they are still below the (very low) levels seen before the vote to leave the EU in June. Even developing countries with big budget deficits can borrow easily. This week, for example, Saudi Arabia tapped the markets for the first time, raising $17.5 billion—the largest-ever emerging-market bond issue.

Vigilantes have become vastly outnumbered by bondholders with no real interest in maximising the return on their portfolios. Central banks have been the biggest factor in the market’s transformation. After the crisis, they turned to quantitative easing (QE), ie, expanding their balance-sheets by creating new money in order to buy assets. The collective balance-sheets of the six most active (the Federal Reserve, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank, Swiss National Bank, Bank of England and People’s Bank of China) have grown from around $3 trillion in 2002 to more than $18 trillion today, according to Pimco, a fund-management group. These central banks want to lower bond yields—indeed, the Bank of Japan intends to keep the ten-year Japanese bond yield at around 0%. Instead of acting as vigilantes patrolling profligate politicians, central banks have become their accomplices.

Then there are pension funds and insurance companies, which buy government bonds to match their long-term liabilities. Neither group has an incentive to sell bonds if yields fall; indeed, they may need to buy more because, when interest rates are low, the present value of their discounted future liabilities rises. Banks, too, play an important role. They have been encouraged to buy government bonds as a “liquidity reserve” to avoid the kind of funding problems they had in the 2008 crisis. They also use them as the collateral for short-term borrowing.

Yielding to none

With so many forced buyers, trillions of dollars-worth of government bonds are trading on negative yields. “When you have so many price-insensitive buyers, the price-discovery role of the market doesn’t work any more,” says Kit Juckes, a strategist at Société Générale, a French bank.

For much of the 20th century, bonds were the assets of choice for investors wanting a decent income. No longer. Government bonds now seem to be a home for the rainy-day money of institutional investors. The rules say government bonds are safe, making it virtually compulsory to own them. “It’s about the return of capital, not the return on capital,” says Joachim Fels, Pimco’s chief economist.

If central banks are willing buyers of an asset, that asset is as good as cash for most investors. So like cash, government bonds generate a very low return. Always true of the shortest-dated bonds, to be repaid in a few weeks or months, this now applies to a much broader range; two-year debt yields are negative in Germany and Japan and below 1% in America. Open-market operations, in which central banks buy and sell securities, used to focus on debt maturing in less than three months; now they cover bond yields at much longer maturities.

This new-style bond market has created a problem for those who run mutual funds or who manage private wealth—and who do care about the return. Large parts of the bond market no longer offer the rewards they used to. As each year begins, polls show that fund managers think bond yields are bound to rise (and prices to fall); each year they are surprised as yields stay low. “When your old-fashioned pricing model doesn’t work, how do you decide when the asset is cheap?” asks Mr Juckes.

In practice, such investors have been forced to take more risk in search of a higher return. They have bought corporate bonds and emerging-market debt. And in the government-bond markets they have bought higher-yielding longer-term debt.

A key measure of risk is duration; the number of years investors would take to earn back their money. In Europe the average duration of government debt has increased from six to seven years since 2008, according to Salman Ahmed of Lombard Odier, a fund-management group. That doesn’t sound much. But the longer the duration of a portfolio, the more exposed it is to a rise in bond yields. Mr Ahmed reckons that a half-a-percentage-point rise in yields “would create significant and damaging mark-to-market losses”.

Another change in the bond markets exacerbates the problem: liquidity has deteriorated. There have been some sudden jumps in yields in recent years—the “taper tantrum” in 2013, when the Fed started to reduce its QE programme; and a surge in German bond yields in 2015, for example.

Banks may hold bonds for liquidity purposes. But because they are required to put capital aside to reflect the risk of holding corporate debt, they have become less keen to own them for market-making, or trading. Before 2008, bond dealers had inventories worth more than 2% of the corporate-bond market; now their inventories are only a tenth of the size, in relative terms (see chart).