As we are sure you are aware, the financial markets have had a bit of a tough time going anywhere this year. The S&P 500 has been caught in a 6% trading band all year, capped on the upside by a 3% gain and on the downside by a 3% loss. It has been a back-and-forth flurry. We’ve seen a bit of the same in the bond market. After rising 3.5% in the first month of the year, the 10-year Treasury bond has given away its entire year-to-date gain and then some as of mid-June. 2015 stands in relative contrast to largely upward stock and bond market movement over the past three years. What’s different this year, and what are the risks to investment outcomes ahead?
As we have discussed in recent notes, the probabilities are very high that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year. We have suggested that the markets are attempting to “price in” the first interest rate increase in close to a decade. We believe this is part of the story in why markets have acted as they have in 2015.
But there is a much larger longer-term issue facing investors lurking well beyond the short-term Fed interest rate increase to come. Bond yields (interest rates) rest at generational lows and prices at generational highs -- levels never seen before by today's investors. Let’s set the stage a bit, because the origins of this secular issue reach back more than three decades.
It may seem hard to remember, but in September 981, the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond hit a monthly peak of 15.32%. At the time, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker was conquering long-simmering inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy by raising interest rates to levels no one had ever seen. Thirty-one years later, in July 2012, that same yield on 10-year Treasury bonds stood at 1.53%, a 90% decline in coupon yield, as Fed Chairman Bernanke was attempting to slay the perception of deflation with the lowest level of interest rates investors had ever experienced. This 1981-present period encompasses one of the greatest bond bull markets in U.S. history, and certainly over our lifetimes. Prices of existing bonds rise when interest rates fall, and vice versa. So from 1981 through the present, bond investors have been rewarded with coupon yield (continuing cash flow) and rising prices (price appreciation via continually lower interest rates). Remember, this is what has already happened.
As always, what is important to investors is not what happened yesterday, but rather what they believe will happen tomorrow. And although this is not about to occur instantaneously, the longer-term direction of interest rates globally has only one road to travel – up. The key questions ultimately being, how fast and how high?
This is important for a number of reasons. First, for decades bond investments have been a “safe haven” destination for investors during periods of equity market and general economic turmoil. That may no longer be the case as we look ahead. In fact, with interest rates at generational lows and prices at all-time highs, forward bond market price risk has never been higher. An asset class that has always been considered safe is no longer, regardless of what happens to stock prices.
We need to remember that so much of what has occurred in the current market cycle has been built on “confidence” in central bankers globally. Central bankers control very short-term interest rates (think money market fund rates). Yes, quantitative easing allowed these central banks to print money and buy longer-maturity bonds, influencing longer-term yields for a time. That’s over for now in the U.S., although it is still occurring in Japan and Europe. So it is very important to note that, over the last five months, we have witnessed the 10-year U.S. Treasury yields move from 1.67% to close to 2.4%, and the Fed has not lifted a finger. In Germany, the yield on a 10-year German Government Bund was roughly .05% a month ago. As of this writing, it has risen to 1%. That’s a 20-fold increase in the 10-year interest rate inside of a month’s time.
For a global market that has risen at least in part on the back of confidence in central bankers, this type of volatility we have seen in longer-term global bond yields as of late implies investors may be concerned central bankers are starting to “lose control” of their respective bond markets. Put another way? Investors may be starting to lose confidence in central bank policies being supportive of bond investments -- not a positive in a cycle where this buildup of confidence has been such a meaningful support to financial asset prices.
You may remember that what caused then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker to drive interest rates up in the late 1970s was embedded inflationary expectations on the part of investors and the public at large. Volcker needed to break that inflationary mindset. Once inflationary expectations take hold in any system, they are very hard to reverse. A huge advantage for central bankers being able to “print money” in very large magnitude in the current cycle has been that inflationary expectations have remained subdued. In fact, consumer price indexes (CPI) as measured by government statistics have been very low in recent years.
When central bankers started to print money, many were worried this currency debasement would lead to rampant inflation. Again, that has not happened. We have studied historical inflationary cycles and have not been surprised at outcomes in the current cycle in the least. For the heightened levels of inflation to sustainably take hold, wage inflation must be present. Of course, in the current cycle, continued labor market pressures have resulted in the lowest wage growth of any cycle in recent memory. But is this about to change at the margin? The chart below shows us wage growth may be on the cusp of rising to levels we have not yet seen in the current cycle on the upside. Good for the economy, but not so good for keeping inflationary pressures as subdued as has been the case since 2009.
You may be old enough to remember that bond investments suffered meaningfully in the late 1970s as inflationary pressures rose unabated. We are not expecting a replay of that environment, but the potential for rising inflationary expectations in a generational low-interest-rate environment is not a positive for what many consider “safe” bond investments. Quite the opposite.
As we have discussed previously, total debt outstanding globally has grown very meaningfully since 2009. In this cycle, it is the governments that have been the credit expansion provocateurs via the issuance of bonds. In the U.S. alone, government debt has more than doubled from $8 trillion to more than $18.5 trillion since 2009. We have seen like circumstances in Japan, China and part of Europe. Globally, government debt has grown close to $40 trillion since 2009. It is investors and in part central banks that have purchased these bonds. What has allowed this to occur without consequence so far has been the fact that central banks have held interest rates at artificially low levels.
Although debt levels have surged, interest cost in 2014 was not much higher than we saw in 2007, 2008 and 2011. Of course, this was accomplished by the U.S. Fed dropping interest rates to zero. The U.S. has been able to issue one-year Treasury bonds at a cost of 0.1% for a number of years. 0% interest rates in many global markets have allowed governments to borrow more both to pay off old loans and finance continued expanding deficits. In late 2007, the yield on 10-year U.S. Treasuries was 4-5%. In mid-2012, it briefly dropped below 1.5%.
So here is the issue to be faced in the U.S., and we can assure you that conceptually identical circumstances exist in Japan, China and Europe. At the moment, the total cost of U.S. Government debt outstanding is approximately 2.2%. This number comes directly from the U.S. Treasury website and is documented monthly. At that level of debt cost, the U.S. paid approximately $500 billion in interest last year. In a rising-interest-rate environment, this number goes up. At just 4%, our interest costs alone would approach $1 trillion -- at 6%, probably $1.4 trillion in interest-only costs. It’s no wonder the Fed has been so reluctant to raise rates. Conceptually, as interest rates move higher, government balance sheets globally will deteriorate in quality (higher interest costs). Bond investors need to be fully aware of and monitoring this set of circumstances. Remember, we have not even discussed the enormity of off-balance-sheet government liabilities/commitments such as Social Security costs and exponential Medicare funding to come. Again, governments globally face very similar debt and social cost spirals. The “quality” of their balance sheets will be tested somewhere ahead.
Our final issue of current consideration for bond investors is one of global investment concentration risk. Just what has happened to all of the debt issued by governments and corporations (using the proceeds to repurchase stock) in the current cycle? It has ended up in bond investment pools. It has been purchased by investment funds, pension funds, the retail public, etc. Don Coxe of Coxe Advisors (long-tenured on Wall Street and an analyst we respect) recently reported that 70% of total bonds outstanding on planet Earth are held by 20 investment companies. Think the very large bond houses like PIMCO, Blackrock, etc. These pools are incredibly large in terms of dollar magnitude. You can see the punchline coming, can’t you?
If these large pools ever needed to (or were instructed to by their investors) sell to preserve capital, sell to whom becomes the question? These are behemoth holders that need a behemoth buyer. And as is typical of human behavior, it’s a very high probability a number of these funds would be looking to sell or lighten up at exactly the same time. Wall Street runs in herds. The massive concentration risk in global bond holdings is a key watch point for bond investors that we believe is underappreciated.
Is the world coming to an end for bond investors? Not at all. What is most important is to understand that, in the current market cycle, bonds are not the safe haven investments they have traditionally been in cycles of the last three-plus decades. Quite the opposite. Investment risk in current bond investments is real and must be managed. Most investors in today’s market have no experience in managing through a bond bear market. That will change before the current cycle has ended. As always, having a plan of action for anticipated market outcomes (whether they ever materialize) is the key to overall investment risk management.
Brian Pretti is a partner and chief investment officer at Capital Planning Advisors. He has been an investment management professional for more than three decades. He served as senior vice president and chief investment officer for Mechanics Bank Wealth Management, where he was instrumental in growing assets under management from $150 million to more than $1.4 billion.