Bond Environment, 2Q12 (ii)

This is the second installment of the current bond market outlook of Denis Jamison of Strategy Managers, LLC.  The first installment appeared yesterday.
Free money…
…at least until 2014 according to the Federal Reserve. They just about guaranteed they will maintain the current zero to 0.25% Federal Funds rate until early 2014.
When the financial crisis began to unfold in 2008, the Federal Reserve responded by flooding the monetary system with credit. Now, they have a new gambit in their efforts to push consumers and businesses toward more spending – a low interest rate guarantee. The Fed seems to be taking the role of the real estate salesperson getting you to buy a house you can’t afford by offering a temporarily low mortgage rate or the car dealer looking to reduce inventories by providing zero percent financing. As Yogi Berra said after seeing back-to-back homers by Maris and Mantle, “it’s déjà vu, all over again.” Wasn’t it the mispricing and misallocation of capital that got us here in the first place?
Excess liquidity creates bubbles either in the real economy or the financial markets. Right now, the benefits of low interest rates and surplus central bank credit have flowed to the financial markets and the big commercial banks. Market participants know the Fed is behind the curve on its interest rate policy. Based on a formula derived by Stanford University economist John Taylor, the current short-term interest rate should be 0.65%. That, however, is based on trailing core CPI of just 1.9% and the current unemployment level of 8.2%. It’s reasonable to assume that core CPI will trend higher -CPI including food and energy prices is already 2.7% – and the unemployment rate will gradually respond to 2%-plus GDP growth. If you plug 2.25% inflation and 7.5% unemployment into the professor’s formula, you come up with a Federal Funds target of 1.8%. How we get there from here is anyone’s guess. But it’s very hard to get the air out of bubbles – financial or otherwise – without a pop.
Go Straight Ahead
When you reach $5 trillion, make a sharp left. That appears to have been the roadmap for the federal government’s debt expansion. From 1970 until 2008, the outstanding debt grew about 3.5% yearly and reached about $5 trillion. (In the Fifties and early Sixties, the annual increase was less than 1 %.) Direct federal government debt is now $10.4 trillion or about 68% of nominal GDP. (This only includes public debt outstanding. It doesn’t include the $4.7 trillion of inter-government holdings – otherwise known as the Social Security Trust Fund – theoretically owed by the federal government .) With the government’s debt burden growing at 11% a year and nominal GDP expanding 4% to 5%, debt could top GDP within six years.
That’s the point of no return – the debt trap. From that point forward, the cost of funding the national debt will grow faster than the economy.
There are only two ways to escape the debt trap: budget austerity or currency devaluation. So far, our elected officials appear to be unwilling to address the first alternative – and for good reason. Most of the money is spent on folks who vote. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid account for 44% of total outlays. The defense budget grabs another 24% and social welfare spending – mostly going to state and local governments – claims another 12%. That’s 80% of the total. (Meanwhile, the small 6% slice going to pay the interest on the national debt will likely balloon over the next few years.) Devaluation is tricky – but much more doable. If inflation can be pushed higher, the nominal value of everything real goes up and the actual value of debt goes down. It’s worth remembering from 1974 through 1981, nominal GDP grew at a 10% annual rate despite two recessions. Little of this growth was real – inflation adjusted GDP averaged just above 2% a year –but it sure lowered everyone’s debt burden.  In that regard, it’s worth citing a quote from Adam Smith, “All money is a matter of belief.”
Keeping a Low Profile
We continue to keep the effective maturity of our clients portfolio’s below that of their benchmarks. This served us well during the March quarter and the accounts tended to outperform their benchmarks. It is worth noting, however, that a bearish stance in a bear market does not necessarily mean you make money. Good relative performance does not mean good absolute performance. During 2011, long-term U.S. Treasury bonds returned nearly 30% and the mortgage market recorded an 8% gain. We expect most of those outsized increases to be reversed this year. Given the low absolute level of coupon income for most bonds, even a small increase in interest rates will translate into a negative total return. The current year promises to be quite difficult for most bond investors.

Bond Environment, 2Q12 (i)

Here’s the first part (of two) of the April bond market analysis prepared for clients by the firm of my friend and mentor, Denis Jamison.  The second will appear tomorrow.
The alarm clock sounded for bond investors in the March quarter.
On the strength of some positive readings on the economy, markets discounted the possibility of additional Federal Reserve easing.  More accommodative policies by the European central bank reduced the risk of a credit crisis in Spain and Italy. Accordingly, doomsday speculators pulled money from the U.S. government bond market. The result was a dip in bond prices. With little coupon income to cushion the fall, investors suffered big losses.
Long term U.S. Treasury bonds recorded a negative 6% total return. Other sectors fared better; mortgages returned about 0.6% for the quarter while corporate bonds gained about 2.5%. The investment dynamics of these sectors differ somewhat from those of the government bond market. Mortgages are big beneficiaries of the Fed’s zero short-term interest rate policy while corporate securities are helped by the improving financial strength of U.S. business, especially the banks. Yield spreads between corporate bonds and U.S. Treasuries narrowed sharply during the quarter. Whether this can continue, remains to be seen.
Bond prices snapped back sharply after a ho-hum employment reading for March (reported on April 6th)
…and on renewed concerns about Spain’s fiscal position. However, investor focus on these transient economic and credit risk factors obscures the underlying reality of the government bond market. The current low yield level has made these securities more risky. Their price sensitivity to any given change in interest rates has increased. For example, a full coupon thirty year bond priced to yield 3% is about 10% more volatile than a similar full coupon security priced to yield 4%. In addition, there is significantly less coupon income now than in prior periods.
The fixed income markets are anesthetized by a cocktail of promised zero short-term interest rates, a flood of liquidity being provided by central banks around the world and quiescent inflation.  So, it is likely we will continue along the bottom of this interest rate trough for some time.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the bumps and dips won’t provide large swings in total returns for bond holders.
Back on track?
For the U.S. economy, that’s probably true. Despite disappointment regarding the March employment numbers, by any reasonable measure, the U.S. economic expansion is where it should be. Based on the March workplace survey by the U.S. Labor Department, about 132.8 million folks are employed versus 130 million a year ago. That’s a 2.1% year on year gain. A respectable increase considering that the public sector – particularly state and local governments – reduced payrolls. Only 22 million people worked in the public sector in March – 600,000 less than a year ago. In addition to the increase in total workforce, those employed are taking home more money. Average weekly earnings are up about 2.6% over the last twelve months.
Thanks to the employment gains and higher earnings,
retail sales have fully recovered from the recession lows.  They are running ahead 6.5% on a year over year basis. Auto sales are now averaging between 14 and 15 million units on an annualized basis compared with less than 10 million units during much of 2009.  GDP – the broad measure of total goods and services being produced in the U.S. economy – grew at a 3% rate during the final quarter of 2011. While that pace of expansion is unlikely to be sustained, it is reasonable to expect growth will exceed the 1.6% pace set during the full year of 2011. Most economists predict something between 2% and 2.5% growth this year.
Most of the risks to this moderate expansion scenario don’t hold up well under close examination.
Some argue that the recent growth spurt is being fueled by the large increase in reported consumer debt – consumer credit expanded 6.9% in the final months of 2011. However, most of that increase reflected an expansion of government education loan programs which replaced private sector programs that were not included in the consumer credit totals. Basically, the consumer is not overextended. Gasoline prices are also a concern to many. However, auto fuel efficiency has increased and gasoline usage is down. Price changes at the pump will have a much more muted impact on consumer spending. Given this backdrop, it isn’t surprising that many Fed governors are beginning to question the need for a continuation of the current monetary stimuli being provided by the central bank. However, financial markets now appear to be addicted to these opiates. This may be the real risk facing both investors and the working public.
Stay tuned for the concluding section of the Jamison report tomorrow.