US bond market environment, October 2012

This is the quarterly letter sent by Strategy Asset Managers, LLC, a bond management firm, posted with permission from my friend and mentor, Denis Jamison.

Today’s post sketches out the current situation.  Tomorrow’s wil give Mr. Jamison’s investment conclusions.

a market of bonds

It’s an old saying on Wall Street–this isn’t a stock market but a market of stocks.  In other words, individual stocks can rise or fall regardless of the general direction of the market.  The same can now be said of the fixed income market.  formerly, the direction of interest rates dictated returns across most segments of the bond market.  If Treasuries called the tune and the rest of the fixed income market danced along–some a little slower or faster–but they were all moving to the same beat.

That’s now changed.

Policies implemented by the federal Reserve effectively have eliminated real yields for “riskless” securities like US Treasury bonds.  (By riskless, I mean credit risk–that is, the risk of not getting paid at maturity.  T-Bonds still have plenty of market risk.)  Without government bond yields calling the tune, all sorts of other factors are determining returns in various segments of the fixed income market.

The markets are now being driven by monetary policy designed to:

(1)  keep interest rates at zero for short-term, low-risk investment-like savings accounts and US Treasury bills and notes,

(2)  narrow the yield spread between “safe” investments like US Treasuries ans riskier investments like corporate bonds, and

(3) lower the return spread between fixed income assets and securities with no maturity–like common stocks.

In fact, the Federal Reserve would really like investors to go out and spend their money on real goods and services.  It has stated that zero interest rates are here to stay until the economy has fully recovered–that means much lower unemployment and much stronger economic growth.  Chairman Bernanke, unfortunately, doesn’t have a crystal ball and isn’t telling us when he thinks that will happen.  At the moment, however, he plans no change in interest rate policy through 2014.  Of course, he has pushed out the probable end date of his quantitative easing program before and is likely to do it again.  Market pundits have started referring to the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as QE unlimited.

When the bank is playing…

…you just keep dancing.  We have just entered the third phase of the Federal Reserve quantitative easing.  in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.  Essentially, “quantitative easing” means that the Federal Reserve will buy financial assets from banks and put cash in their–the bankers’–hands.  The hope is that, somehow, this money will filter through the system and the banks will loan that money to you and you will buy a house or a car or anything.

Why doesn’t the Federal Reserve just lower interest rates and make the loans cheaper?  Well, interest rates are already at zero so they need to do something else.  Since the banks are stuffed with money, will they loan the money to you?  No, because you don’t have a stellar credit history and your house is under water.  They refuse to take credit risk because they face political and regulatory retribution if they suffer any losses.

Has the quantitative easing program improved the economy?  Not yet, but it has certainly been a windfall for the financial markets.  The S&P market index is up 115% off the 2009 lows and every time it seems to be losing steam, we get another QE program.

Is all this going to end badly?  Probably, yes, but in the meantime don’t fight the Fed, don’t fight the tape and keep dancing.

The quantitative easing programs are having one clear impact–a massive increase in the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet.  The Federal Reserve was created in 1913 through a bill sponsored by two legislators, Carter Glass and Parker Willis.  Mr. Glass later went on to co-sponsor a bill that prohibited commercial banks from being securities firms.  (Interestingly, that 1933 piece of legislation was struck down during the Clinton administration.  Some say the repeal was a root cause of the 2008-2009 financial collapse.) The Federal reserve’s mandate was to provide liquidity to the banking system in times of crisis and to gradually expand the money supply to support non-inflationary economic growth.

Until 2008, the Federal Reserve provided that liquidity to the banking system by gradually expanding its assets through the purchase of government bonds from the banks.  That has changed.  Federal Reserve assets grew from $890 billion in June 2008 to $2.8 trillion most recently.  This is the result of asset purchases made by the Federal Reserve through its various QE programs.  Government bonds account for $1.6 trillion of those assets.  Another $800 billion are mortgage-backed securities and the Fed plans to add about $60 billion a month to that pile.  Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve’s capital base hasn’t kept up with the asset growth.  Now, $55 billion in capital supports those $2.8 trillion in assets–a leverage ratio of 50:1!

So, the Federal Reserve has done an excellent job of reducing leverage in the banking system through the purchase of all those assets and, as an additional benefit, helped keep government borrowing costs low.  But it has transferred a large portion of private sector bank leverage to its own balance sheet.  Any percentage change in the price of the assets on its balance sheet will be reflected fifty-fold as percentage change in the Fed’s capital.

In the movie”It’s a Wonderful Life,” the banker,George Bailey, was lucky enough to have an angel when his depositors make a run on the bank.  I hope Mr. Bernanke has an angel on his side if interest rates ever rise.


More tomorrow.

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