the Fed’s QE3: a “reverse Volcker moment”?

The most recent A-list editorial feature in the Financial Timeswritten by Pimco marketer Mohamed El-Erian, asks this question and answers it with a carefully hedged “Yes.”

Several aspects of the editorial are interesting:

–it’s not the usual El-Erian turgid statement of the obvious.  Instead, it’s concise, well-written and makes a point.  To me, this underscores the fact that Mr. El-Erian is writing, not as an individual, but as the voice of the collective wisdom of the largest and most successful bond investment management firm in the US.  As such, the opinion expressed should be taken seriously.

–the original “Volcker moment” was Paul Volcker’s decision as newly-appointed Fed chairman to deal with runaway inflation in the US by raising interest rates to extremely high levels for an extended period of time.

The editorial suggests Mr. Bernanke is currently in the process of deliberately trying to manufacture higher levels of inflation, thus reversing the major thrust of Fed policy over the past thirty years.  Calling the move a “reverse Volcker moment” implies that the decision may have equally momentous implications (more about this next week).

–although the editorial doesn’t say this (Pimco markets bond funds, after all), such a Fed policy reversal would likely have negative consequences for all securities markets, but especially unfavorable ones for bonds.

At present, long Treasuries yield about 3%, which we can break out into a 1% real yield and 2% as compensation for benign, stable annual inflation of around 2%.  If the world began to think that inflation in the US could be 3%–and rising–how would bonds be priced?  …at a 5% yield?  …higher?

That’s a big difference, one which would produce significant losses for current Treasury holders.

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