Bonds in a bind

Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Over recent weeks the trade war ebbed and flowed, Hong Kong erupted in more protests, both the UK and Germany teetered on recession, New Zealand’s central bank stunned markets by dropping its benchmark rate by 50 basis points , Thailand also surprised by cutting rates and India’s central bank lowered its rate by an unconventional 35 basis points.

However, away from the focus of much financial commentary is our observation that the world’s bond markets have dived deeper into a dark space.

In this thought piece I wish to explain that whilst bond markets are not acting rationally their price behaviour can be explained. Further, whilst the inevitable will be delayed (a bond crash) it won’t be stopped.   

Take, for instance, my opening observation that Greek ten year bonds have rallied to a record low yield (for them) of just 2.1%. At the shorter maturity, Greek 2 year bonds yield just 1.4% which is lower than the yield on US 2 year bonds (1.65%).

This is extraordinary because Greece has a Government debt-to-GDP ratio of 181%, youth unemployment of 40.4%, and its nominal GDP has shrunk by 23% over the past decade. Greece has defaulted eight times and has been in default for half of its time as an independent country. Logic would suggest that a 2% return on Greece bonds is not enough for a rational investor to accept.

However, the Greek bond market is not an isolated case, for most of the world’s bond markets are transitioning through the greatest asset price bubble of all time. Many “emerging-market” debt instruments currently have a negative yield. Examples include Polish government debt of up to seven years’ maturity and all of Czech Republic’s euro-denominated debt.

Further, there are several European corporate junk bonds that are trading with negative yields where investors — via the negative yield — are in effect paying the company for the privilege of lending to them.

But we should not only consider low quality debt or economies. Thus, a glance at Austria’s historic 2017 issue of 100 year bonds with a 2.1% issuance yield, now sees them trading with a yield to maturity (only 98 years to go)  of just 1.2%. Not surprisingly, Austria is now issuing more 100 year bonds, while the asset managers who bought the first tranche bask in the delusion of thinking themselves as being very clever.

The asset managers placing these investments (or bets) on behalf of their clients must believe that European inflation will average less than 1.2% over the next 100 years. But maybe they are simply not thinking at all, and therefore combining momentum trading with a desperate chase for yield – any yield!

However, in their defence they are dealing in markets completely compressed by unrelenting and excessive Quantitative Easing (QE).

Our next chart shows by how much yields (in this case 5 year bonds) have crunched under the steady pressure of European QE over the last five years.

I would suggest that rather than the European bond market predicting a recession (which many commentators still claim is why bond yields are falling), bond yields have merely succumbed to the unrelenting wishes of the European Central Bank (ECB) to push down the cost of government debt.

Therefore, the likes of Greece, Italy and Portugal have not and probably cannot default on their government debt even though they have a lot of it.

By forcing down the cost of bond debt, the ECB has allowed most of the major Eurozone economies to maintain expansionary budgets (fiscal deficits) without any concern that they might not be able to service the expanded level of debt.

While not adopting a QE program (yet), I believe that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is adopting a similar strategy in dealing with the excessive level of household debt. That is, the RBA is attempting to hold the cost of mortgage debt down, so that it either can be paid back, or accessed by new property owners. To achieve this result requires declining cash rates supported by lower bond yields.

Whether the ECB or RBA succeeds in their strategies is open to conjecture. However, what should be understood is that the owners of government bonds will have to exit their investments at some point to crystallise their windfall returns. This is because the yield (and potential return) on these assets is rapidly disappearing. The cash required to meet liabilities (such as pension payments) will only be met by selling or liquidating bonds. I would suggest that this is a massive problem that is developing across Europe and it can only be solved by unrelenting QE – much like that adopted in Japan.

The European (and the Japanese) bond markets are in a very dark space with a growing potential for massive losses. Of course, bond managers won’t admit this, nor will they acknowledge that their only hope is that the central banks continue to buy up all government bonds on issue. I guess then, at that point,  we won’t need bond managers!

Meanwhile US Government debt is ballooning

Maybe I was a little harsh on Greece (above), because the US fiscal position continues to deteriorate under the Trump administration. After ten months (ended July), the 2019 US fiscal deficit is greater than the total deficit of fiscal 2018.

The Trump tax cuts effectively broke the fiscal trajectory with the US deficit approaching levels seen in the GFC.

According to recent US Treasury numbers, the interest expense alone on US public debt is on track to reach a record US$577 billion this fiscal year, more than the entire budget deficit in financial year 2014 (US$483 billion) or FY 2015 (US$439 billion). This year’s interest bill equates to 2.7% of estimated GDP, the highest percentage since 2011.

No wonder President Trump wants interest rates down in the US. He clearly wants the same benefits that are afforded by monetary policy in Europe and Japan.

I calculate that a 1% reduction in the cost of debt for the US government (currently 2.5% across the maturities) would lower the US deficit by US$200 billion. However, that will take many years to achieve as debt has to be rolled over, and the Trump Administration hasn’t got that much time left. The US election is in 15 months’ time.

This leads me to reiterate a forecast that I made late last year. The US Federal Reserve (the Fed) will reintroduce QE as the US budget outcome deteriorates. President Trump has begun to coerce the Fed into cutting cash rates further, and the Fed will succumb and justify their decision by noting slowing world economic growth. Indeed, it is possible given the mess that has been created by both the trade war and QE, that the Fed may move quicker than many are currently forecasting.

While the world economic growth outlook looks poor for the coming 12 months, I cannot see how this justifies an allocation to ultra-low or negative yielding bonds.

The reason I come to this conclusion is this. When there is a recession (and there will be) it will inevitably end. It will not endure for very long – certainly not 100 or even 5 years. When it ends then negative yielding bonds will also end. Bond prices will then correct very sharply.

3 Responses to “Bonds in a bind”

  1. Rex Barlow says:

    The financial world is just as crazy as its politicians. It has to end badly .The world has become soft on making hard decisions to reverse previous mistakes or worse still ,those in power think they can avoid a major financial crisis by kicking the can down the road using more debt or printing more money. The longer this whole mess continues, ,the bigger the fall . The big risk is a massive social and political upheaval worldwide.The world will be a very different place after the Big Fall ( Deoression).The only store of wealth long term is gold as central bank debase their currencies.A catch 22 situation everywhere as the darkside arrives.

  2. Chris Gallus says:

    Could we have an article of the caliber of this weekly. I would happily subscribe. Otherwise what do I have to sign up to to get advice of this caliber on re-constructing my share portfolio. Chris Gallus

  3. Caspar Koperberg says:

    I have been feeling uneasy about financial markets for some years . Consequently , I’ve adopted a conservative approach to investing for my SMSF, only to find that the industry and retail fund managers have out-performed me easily . Now it seems your article is suggesting that I should liquidate my bond holdings and buy gold ???

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