The Flight to Quality

BERKELEY – In late May, the yield to maturity of the 30-year United States Treasury bond was 4.07% per year – down a full half a percentage point since the start of the month. That means that a 30-year Treasury bond had jumped in price by more than 15%. So a marginal investor was willing to pay more than 15% more cash and more than 30% more equities for US Treasury bonds at the end of the month than at the beginning. This signals a remarkable shift in relative demand for high-quality and liquid financial assets – an extraordinary rise in market-wide excess demand for such assets.

Why does this matter? Because, as economist John Stuart Mill wrote in the first half of the nineteenth century, excess demand for cash (or for some broader range of high-quality and liquid assets) is excess supply of everything else. What economists three generations later were to call Walras’s Law is the principle that any market in which people are planning to buy more than is for sale must be counterbalanced by a market or markets in which people are planning to buy less.

We have seen this principle in action since the early fall of 2007, as growing excess demand for safe, liquid, high-quality financial assets has carried with it growing excess supply for the goods and services that are the products of ongoing human labor. This is true to such an extent that there is now a 10% gap between the global economy’s current output and what it would be producing if it were in its normal relatively healthy state of near-balance.

And global financial markets are now telling us that this excess demand for safe, liquid, high-quality financial assets has just gotten bigger.