Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Outlook for U.S. Treasuries

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

Treasuries rallied the last week of February, which should be expected in a strong dollar environment. The rally in the U.S. dollar that started in early December (around the time that news of the problems in Greece began to surface) is ongoing and this will continue to be bullish for U.S. government bond prices and bearish for interest rates while it lasts. Inflation expectations cause the opposite outcome however. These two competing forces help explain why longer dated treasury interest rates have been trading in a bullish pattern since May 2009, but after a brief initial burst upward have traded sideways since that time. Current conditions indicate that a breakout rally to higher rates will probably have to wait a while longer.

In the intermediate and long-term, there are a number of significant risks to U.S. treasuries as well as most other government's bonds for that matter. Direct default is now on the table for smaller economies like Greece. Indirect default through inflation and currency devaluation is the risk for the major economies, such as the U.S., UK, and Japan. Some top mainstream economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and chief economics commentator for the Financial Times Martin Wolf, have recently made the case that the U.S. can't default on its debt because it owns a printing press. While this is technically true, it doesn't mean the paying back a bond investment with money that is worth much less than it was at the time when it was lent isn't a type of default. Why would anyone want to buy a government's bonds under such circumstances? Bill Gross, managing director at the world's largest bond fund PIMCO, refers to this type of default as stealth-default.  Gross has made the case that the risk of either type of default of government debt will cause government debt and corporate debt to have similar interest rates in the future. This would cause interest rates on government bonds to rise relative to corporates in the next few years.

In the short-term though bad economic news along with the strong dollar should keep U.S. treasury interest rates from rising. There have been a host of negative economic reports in the last couple of weeks on the banking sector, consumers, housing, and durable goods. The ISM Manufacturing Index released on March 1st was a disappointment and its component parts provide an excellent representation of the current push-me pull-you factors on U.S. interest rates. While manufacturing is still in an expansionary mode, new orders and production (indications of future activity) declined sharply and this is a bearish for interest rates. However, the prices paid component, which represents inflation, was the highest number in the February report as it was in the January report. This is bullish for interest rates.  

While the Federal Reserve has frequently announced that U.S. economy is in recovery, it has always followed this up with a statement about how it is going to keep interest rates low for a prolonged period of time. This would not be necessary in an economy that was actually recovering. When the Fed is talking out of both sides of its mouth, investors should pay attention to what it is doing and ignore what it is saying. A prolonged period of low interest rates is inflationary and this means long-term treasury rates will be going up. The only question is when.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: A Snapshot of the Energy Markets

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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