By John O’Donnell
REUTERS: It doesn’t look like much, but a boxy wooden vintage Swedish footstool isn’t just a place to rest your weary feet after cross-country skiing. It is the latest competition to hedge funds or high end real estate. And that means it will cost you $17,000.
A global glut of cheap money is prompting investors to take unprecedented risks in order to earn returns. From the United States to the 19-country euro zone, central banks have lowered interest rates to zero since the financial crisis started in 2007 and still haven’t been able to raise them back.
Nearly a decade of free money helped these countries through the worst of the crisis, but at a heavy cost for savers, sapping earnings from traditional investments such as bonds and pushing many to look at riskier, unconventional alternatives.
Interest in hedge funds, property, paintings and wine has risen sharply.
This shift is pronounced in Sweden, a country where interest rates have long been at rock bottom. Bukowskis, a trendy Stockholm auction house, has seen rising demand for Swedish art and Scandinavian designer furniture.
The prices of humble-looking vintage carpets that capture the country’s 1950s zeitgeist of social equality have risen more than ten-fold within five years. One sold for $82,000. The $17,000 footstool is typical of the sort of minimalist, utilitarian furniture you might find at a Nordic summer cottage. For an extra $15,000, you can buy a small solid wood coffee table to go with it.
“Sales online in Sweden are exploding,” said Paulina Sokolow, Bukowskis creative director. “The prices are really increasing. I don’t think we’ve seen the peak.”
Wine has been a big money maker. A 12-bottle case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from the 2000 vintage has risen in value from roughly $2,800 at the time to around $18,600 now. Bonus: whatever happens to prices, you can always drink it. “The returns look attractive in the current climate,” said Tom Gearing, managing director of Cult Wines, a British wine investment firm. “And if everything goes wrong, you are still going to have a tangible asset.”
Hans Peterson, chief investment strategist at Sweden’s SEB bank, says many customers want new ways to invest.
“Clients are frustrated,” he said. “It results in having to buy into cyclically sensitive assets such as equities, which can make those markets more volatile. People are also investing in property.”
The soaring prices for Swedish footstools and rugs come in a country where property prices shot up by 36 percent since the end of 2013. The sale last year of a $12 million apartment in Stockholm set a new record, though it would barely be noticed in London or New York. The boom has been fuelled in part by tax breaks but also by Sweden’s zero interest rate that turned negative in 2015.
A negative rate increases the cost to banks of hoarding cash, designed to fire up lending.
But this heady environment, especially after a recent stock-market swoon, looks vulnerable.
“Are the risks too high?” said Peterson. “Only time will tell.”
The experience of Japan, which has been struggling through two “lost decades” of stagnation, provides a cautionary tale.
Like many cities in Europe now, Tokyo too saw a sharp rise in property prices and in demand for art in the early 1990s.
An abrupt tightening of property investment rules by the Japanese government triggered a collapse in home prices, dragging down the art market with it.
Japan’s subsequent slashing of borrowing rates, which reached zero around 2000, failed to reanimate the economy.
During nearly 20 years of deflation, consumers have postponed spending, believing prices will continue to fall. The country’s debt meanwhile grew to twice the size of its economy.
This is precisely the fate that the European Central Bank is determined to avoid. Its chief means of doing so, however, involves keeping borrowing rates low.
In Switzerland, negative rates, which see the central bank charge banks to hold their money, are being passed on to some customers, forced to pay to keep money on deposit. Some people prefer to stuff money under a mattress. The amount of cash stashed in homes or vaults from the euro zone has topped 1 trillion euros, much of it in 500-euro notes.
“It’s become clear to everybody that we have negative interest rates, they seem to be here for a while and this affects preferences of investors,” said Alfred Roelli, a senior portfolio manager at Pictet, a Swiss bank which introduces its clients to art and collectibles at special events.
He said the low rate environment “forces people to be more adventurous and more open to new investment ideas”.