The Fed looks set to start adding to its balance sheet again: How will the bank ever exit without crashing the bond market?
I think the Federal Reserve is setting up investors for a significant change in policy to be announced after tomorrow’s, Wednesday, December 12, meeting of the Fed’s Open Market Committee.
The new plan would resume the rapid growth of the Fed’s balance sheet and push it to $3 trillion sometime in 2013.
And that just makes the big problem facing the Federal Reserve and the U.S. economy even bigger. After expanding its balance sheet by buying what will soon be an additional $2 trillion in debt to help stave off the worst effects of the global financial crisis and then to support a stumbling U.S. economy, how does the Fed shrink its balance sheet back to something like normal size without crashing the U.S. and global economies?
In other words Wednesday’s Fed meeting has huge implications for bonds, inflation, interest rates and how you structure your portfolio.
The Federal Reserve’s Operation Twist is scheduled to expire in December 2012. That program to swap about $270 billion in short-term Treasuries for longer-term, five- to seven- year debt to lower longer-term interest rates in order to support the recovery of the U.S. housing sector and to stimulate U.S. economic growth is almost certain to end with the year.
But Ben Bernanke and company are also almost certain to replace Operation Twist with a new, more aggressive program of quantitative easing. The Fed is clearly worried that the debate over the fiscal cliff alone or the actual expiration of all of the Bush tax cuts, the Social Security tax reduction, extended unemployment benefits, and the automatic budget cuts imposed by the debt ceiling deal will be enough to slow the U.S. economy and could even send the United States back into recession.
The new program, recent speeches by Federal Reserve governors and basic math argue, will be an out and out plan to buy five- to seven-year Treasuries. That would continue the thrust of Operation Twist but get around a big problem that the Fed now faces. It has become increasingly hard for the Federal Reserve to sell its short-term holdings of Treasuries and to buy medium-term debt to replace them because the Fed has effectively sold most of its short-term holdings. Since September 2011 the Federal Reserve has replaced $667 billion of short-term Treasuries on its balance sheet with medium-term debt. The Fed just doesn’t have much more short-term Treasuries to sell to balance its purchase of medium-term debt.
The new program will require the further expansion of the Federal Reserve’s already massively large balance sheet of $2.85 trillion as of November 21, 2012. That level has been relatively stable since June 2011.
But the new plan would change that. Read more
I think the argument that we’re in an income asset bubble is easy to make–deciding when it might burst and what to do about it are much harder
We are looking at a bubble in the market for income assets.
Money continues to pour into the government bonds of the United States, Japan, Germany and other “safe haven” countries even though yields there are negative after inflation and even though some of these “safe havens” rank among the world’s most indebted governments.
Dividend stocks too have risen to historic highs even as yields have dipped. For example, an index that tracks the Standard & Poor’s “dividend aristocrats,” a basket of 51 stocks that have increased their dividends annually for at least 25 years, hit an all-time high in October.
We all understand the reasons behind this love affair with income assets. Stocks have been scarily volatile for the last decade or more—and threaten to become even more so. The world’s central banks have flooded financial markets with cash, crushing yields, but at the same time promising to keep interest rates extraordinarily low for an extended period, in the formulation of the U.S. Federal Reserve. A sputtering global economy has resulted in low rates of inflation and frequently, in fact, deflation seems a more immediate threat than inflation.
But we know that we’re nearing the end of this cycle. The yield on two-year Treasury notes could drop below the current 0.24%–that’s a negative 1.96% yield at recent U.S. inflation rates—but the yield is unlikely to go below zero. At some point—mid-2015 in the Federal Reserve’s most recent formulation—the world’s central banks will start raising interest rates again. A return to global growth or simple demographic pressures or the aging of the world’s population will lead to higher rates of inflation.
And we all know the big important questions too: When? And What? Knowing what we know—about the likelihood of a bubble and the eventual breaking of that bubble—When do we take action to avoid getting caught up in the bursting of that bubble? And when we take action What do we do? Read more
Nothing surprising in the news from the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee yesterday. The Fed said its plans were unchanged and that it would buy $600 billion in Treasuries in the first six months of 2011 in order to stimulate the economy. The economy itself, the central bank said, was doing better but not better enough to cut unemployment or to change the Fed’s program of bond buying
Nothing new but Treasury prices still took it hard. Prices on the 10-year Treasury fell and the yield climbed to 3.4% as of 2:37 New York time. Prices on the 30-year bond fell and the yield rose to 4.51%.
Bond prices weren’t helped by a bigger than expected gain in retail sales in November of 0.8% also announced yesterday. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had been looking for a gain of 0.6%. The Department of Commerce also revised October’s increase in retail sales up to 1.7%. If the economy is accelerating, bond investors would want higher yields to compensate for a greater risk of inflation.
On the technical charts Treasury bonds and notes have entered territory that usually leads to further declines in bond prices. Read more
It’s a bond rout.
On December 8, prices for U.S. Treasuries plunged and yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury hit a six-month high of 3.33%. That’s a full percentage point higher than the October low. And it’s a shocking 0.76 percentage points above the yield just a month ago on November 8.
It’s not just happening to U.S. Treasuries. Bond prices are plunging and yields soaring for developed economy bonds across the globe. In that same one-month period yields on German 10-year bonds are up 0.62 percentage points, yields on 10-year U.K. bonds are up 0.53 percentage points, and yields on Japanese 10-year bonds are up 0.29 percentage points.
But unless you’ve got part of your 401(k) stashed in an international bond fund it’s U.S. bond prices and yields that you care about. And you should. The drop in bond prices means a climb in interest rates that will affect everything from your retirement planning to your mortgage.
Let’s start with the Why of this big bond market move and then move to the Why you should care.
The reasons for the move up in yields—and down on prices–on U.S. Treasury bonds are pretty simple. Read more
It’s not just happening to U.S. Treasuries. Bond prices are plunging and yields soaring for developed economy bonds across the globe. The benchmark 10-year yields on government debt in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan are all up by 20 to 25% in the last month.
That would be huge volatility even for investors in stocks. For bond buyers it’s scary enough to send them screaming out the door—which, of course, just increases the volatility.
On December 8, yields on 10-year U.S. Treasuries hit a six-month high of 3.33%. That’s a full percentage point higher than the October low. And it’s a shocking 0.76 percentage points above the yield just a month ago on November 8. (Treasury prices rallied on December 9 but they’re down again today.)
In that same one-month period yields on German 10-year bonds are up 0.62 percentage points, yields on 10-year U.K. bonds are up 0.53 percentage points, and yields on Japanese 10-year bonds are up 0.29 percentage points.
The reasons for the move up in yields—and down on prices–on U.S. and German government bonds are pretty clear. Read more