The Bond Market Rocket and Fiscal Unsustainability Are On a Collision Path

Recently, the bond market has been in rocket mode. It has achieved liftoff and slipped the surly bonds of earth. And some believe it will keep going.  The price of the U.S. Treasury 10-year bond recently reached an all-time high, generating yields at all-time lows. Moreover, the market yield on the British perpetual bond is reportedly at a 300-year low.  Bond mania has even spread to the sovereign debt of Denmark and Singapore and others where negative yields exist.  More astonishing is the ability of France to issue short-term sovereigns with negative yields!

The U.S. has eclipsed the record interest rates that prevailed when the 1930s Depression era came to an end with the onset of World War II, as shown in the chart to the right.

To get to the previous low yields of early December 1941, the U.S. economy had experienced a decade of depression with cumulative deflation of 30 percent.  With that decade-long trend influencing expectations, the future seemed to call for more of the same.  In that environment, investors favor long-term fixed income that appreciates in real terms as a result of deflation if the long bond is successfully paid and retired despite depression circumstances.  Hence the asset category of choice in a deflationary depression is survivable high quality debt.  In the ’30s, this also included surviving corporate debt that appreciated along with Treasuries, and the AAA-Treasury spread narrowed over the depression years.

Since we presently are in an era of Federal Reserve QEs, you might suspect that the Fed was possibly behind the rising Treasury prices and lowest yields of that era.  However logical it might seem in today’s context, the Fed was nowhere to be found on the buy side of the Treasury market during the depression (something Bernanke seeks to not repeat). Indeed, the money supply declined by 30 percent over the course of the depression, so the bond market did it all on its own, without Fed support. Indeed, being in a pre-Keynesian world, the rationale or desire for manipulating the interest rate or credit conditions was not part of the Fed’s understanding of how to run a central bank.

Then as now, the private market participants price the expected risks and costs of holding a debt instrument over its life, and they require additional yield for each risk and cost they anticipate will materialize.  They generally make this assessment of risk by extrapolating previous trends or by finding a similar historical episode to benchmark the likely gains or losses in value that might take place. Today we find many forecasts (even on this blog) citing the withering force of deleveraging due to over–indebtedness, which takes down an economy and softens demand and prices for goods.  Hence, today’s natural historical model for bond pricing would seem to be the 1930s.

However, while there are similarities, there are also big differences. Today it is the government that is over–leveraged, whereas in the l930s it was the corporate debt sector which makes today’s long Treasury yields suspect.   Though the economy is weak today, we are not in a decade-long depression, and while inflation is low, it is not in a cumulative deflation.  And while the Fed held back this week, they still have a commitment to positive inflation.

The greatest difference is today’s checkmated body politic, which is unable to resolve an ultimately un-financeable Federal deficit. This week we had another episode of kicking the can down the road, with the agreement to run the debt meter another six months before facing the music. This is all in sharp contrast to a much lower government debt load and an obsession to run a balanced fiscal budget despite the depression that prevailed in the 30s.

While the growth/inflation profile is different in the two eras, it is more important to note the difference in long-term fiscal sustainability.  Somewhere during the unfolding drama there will be an unspoken need (not mentioned in legislation or treaties) for the Fed to pull a “Super Mario” Draghi — who, last week, signed up to “do whatever it takes,” which apparently meant ignoring the ECB mandate and directly supporting Spain’s bank and government debt because the market no longer will.

Indeed, in the U. S. at the outset of WWII, the Fed presented the patriotic idea of wartime bond support to the Treasury, not the other way around. Central banks are not shy in the ultimate moment of money needs.

In what should be considered a “white paper,” the Fed’s role in these dire circumstances is recently discussed by Renee Haltom and John A. Weinberg in the Richmond Fed Annual Report, 2011, titled Unsustainable Fiscal Policy: Implications for Monetary Policy. In a rare Fed admission they indicate that “a central bank can reduce the government’s debt burden by creating inflation that was not anticipated by financial markets.  Inflation allows all borrowers, the government included, to repay loans issued in nominal terms with cheaper dollars than the ones they borrowed.”

Indeed, if the Fed were to create inflation, it would not be totally unanticipated.  This is the outcome seen by many observers, including Bill Gross of PIMCO.

And Bill Gross is not alone, as the bond-buying public seems to believe little of the fiscal sustainability story.  Indeed, the flow of funds data, at least for 2011, indicates that the private sector purchased a minority of net new government debt issuance.  Hence, private investors are not the leading purchasers of U.S. Treasuries, causing the all-time depressed bond yields. The graph indicates that the Federal Reserve is buying the lion’s share of net new Federal debt, and foreign investors are in second place. That market thrust no doubt represents a flight from European sovereign exposure, which is in a more advanced state of fiscal decay at the moment.

No doubt some have bought the1930s deflationary depression story as a model outcome to justify buying and holding sovereigns, but this time around it doesn’t lead to the necessary conclusion that sovereigns will appreciate from here.  At today’s entry point of taxable low nominal yields and negative real yields, betting on both a deflationary depression with fiscal sustainability is not only a long shot but is mutually inconsistent.

A deflationary depression doesn’t generate government tax revenues to reach fiscal sustainability unless the voting public is willing to accept a substantial entitlement haircut. Moreover, if the low bond yields were to be maintained it would systemically cause defined-benefit pension plans to underperform.  They would become forced sellers of sovereign bond holding to meet payouts — as is now finally occurring with Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund.

The bond market rocket can glide for a time, perhaps years, until it collides with fiscal unsustainability. At that time it will be revealed plain enough for all to see when the private demand evaporates, much as it did with Spain this week. At that time, the U.S. Treasury is no longer a riskless debt instrument, nor is it immune from inflation.

(That being said, it leaves open the question of whether intentional inflation is bravado in the absence of bank lending, which will be addressed in a subsequent blog.)

When the market comes to understand that sovereign bond strength from a central bank is a mixed blessing — as it both purchases government bonds but also intentionally seeks to create “unanticipated” inflation —the bond market rocket is susceptible to the gravitational pull of Earth.

When that happens, there will be a large debris field for those who entered this untenable crowded trade (or stuck with it) so late in the game, supported not by the bond-buying public but only by a central bank wishing to do its patriotic duty — which includes inflation generation.

This indeed is not the 1930s.


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