More Conundrum

Interesting WSJ discussion on the flattening yield curve:

"Economists’ explanations for what is happening to yields vary, many amounting to too much money chasing too few long-term investments, pushing prices up and potential returns down. Asian central banks and private investors, for example, have been big buyers of U.S. bonds. And as the U.S. population ages and the government prods companies to better fund their pension plans, demand has grown for the kind of long-term bonds that can guarantee payments to future retirees.

The Fed’s own actions also have played a leading role in keeping long-term interest rates low. Over the past year, the Fed has been unusually open about signaling its intentions to the market before each of its short-term rate increases. The predictability of Fed policy has calmed peoples’ worries that a sudden increase in inflation could erode the value of their investments, making investors more willing to part with their money longer, for little extra return.

You know the real reason I’m a referncing this is because I am some bizarre combination of a graphic groupie and a chart whore. Well, we aim to please:

click for larger graphic


What’s this mean to investors? In a word, RISK:

"It has also encouraged investors to take on more risk — for example, by buying long-term bonds with money borrowed at short-term rates. In one indication of investors’ rising tolerance for risk, securities dealers’ outstanding short-term loans to their clients reached an all-time high of $3.5 trillion at the end of June, though it has decreased somewhat since.

If strong economic data — or some shock such as a sudden rise in inflation — prompt investors to sell bonds purchased on borrowed funds, long-term interest rates could jump. For now, though, added demand for long-term bonds is pushing prices up and interest rates down, undermining the Fed’s ability to influence long-term rates."

Go figure. Ultra-low rates encourages speculation in the fixed income markets.

When all is said and done about Greenspan’s Chairmanship, I believe his final legacy will be his surprising willingness to encourage specualtion — in Nasdaq stocks, in Real Estate anmd now in Bonds.

Fed’s Fight Squeezes Banks, Spooks Markets
Vanishing Gap Between Rates For Long- and Short-Term Debt Means Lower Profits for Lenders
WALL STREET JOURNAL, August 9, 2005; Page C1,,SB112351375695107584,00.html

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  1. Andy Nardone commented on Aug 12

    Brings to mind the saying, “More money has been lost chasing yields than at the point of a gun.”

  2. spencer commented on Aug 12

    go back to my chart relating the yield curve to the spread between the unemployment rate and inflation.
    A narrowing of the yield curve is typically accompanied by rising inflation and rising rates –it is just that short rates go up more then long rates.

    So the question becomes what is responsible for the economy slowing — rising inflation or rising rates. Maybe it is some of both.

  3. spencer commented on Aug 12

    Interestingly, you get the same results if you compare interest rates to nominal income or nominal GDP growth. Simply, borrowers ability to repay debt is a function of rising income — either personal or corporate — and when that slows borrowing no longer pays.

    Prior to about the 1960s economists used this relationship rather then real interest rates to explain cyclical swings in the economy.

    We are now getting a nice test of this thesis — income growth significantly exceeds interest rates while real rates may be starting to rise — so the two ideas are giving conflicting signals.

  4. GAB commented on Aug 12

    That theory makes absolutely zero sense. Zero.

    Low short rates encourage holding long bonds because of the carry. But as short rates go up, the carry goes down. So, as carry declines, fewer bondholders are willing to own longer maturities. That should be happening now. It’s not.

    Short rates have been increasing for a year, and yet 10 year note rates are at virtually the exact same level as a year ago. There is clearly, clearly, something else at work here, and it’s not the carry trade.

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