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Where are U.S. Treasury yields headed and how fast could they move?

In early February, the U.S. Treasury made a statement that has not received much attention, even though what it implies regarding their thoughts on the future demand for treasury securities (and hence yields) is very interesting. The announcement was mainly about the auction of $72 billion of coupon securities, but it also said that it plans to issue a final rule on floating-rate notes in the coming months, with the first FRN auction expected to occur within the next year. The statement probably did not get a lot of attention because the Treasury has spoken about the idea of floating-rate notes earlier too. However, it had never given a specific time frame in the past. This is significant, not just because it will be first new type of treasury security to be issued since 1997, when the U.S. government introduced TIPS or Treasury inflation-protected securities, but also because what the need for the Treasury to issue these at this time implies something about their view on interest rates.

The details on the floating rate notes still need to be worked out. Treasury hasn't chosen the index to use, and is considering the Treasury 13-week bill auction high rate, Treasury general collateral overnight repurchase agreement rate, etc. All of these will make Treasury's financing cost variable and expose it to the risk of higher costs in future if the index moves higher.

At a time when yields are low, what is the need to introduce a new security that can result in higher costs as rates increase? The only reason to introduce something that may result in higher cost for debt is the worry that there may not be enough buyers for fixed rate Treasury debt once yields start increasing. With trillion dollar budget deficits and need to refinance maturing debt, if there are not enough buyers, the lower demand will naturally result in yields moving higher quickly.

How much will rates move?

There is almost universal expectation that yields are going higher. Numerous reports and articles over the last few months have mentioned expectations of higher yields and concerns about the risks to investors holding fixed rate debt from various market participants (examples: Barron's, Bank Of America, PIMCO, Financial Times).

In December 2012, when the 10-year treasury yield was 1.71%, the median forecast from all the 21 primary dealer banks of the treasury market was for the 10-year yield to rise to 2.25% at the end of 2013. In February 2013, economist Mark Zandi of the widely used Moodys.com offered "Treasury yields are on track to yield as much as 5% in three years," (though he gave a caveat in his forecast with his assumption of Washington taking the right steps). A Bloomberg survey puts the current forecast for 10-year treasury yield to rise from 1.66 at present to 2.25 at end of 2013 and 2.73 at the end of 2014. For 30-year bond yield, the survey predicts yields will rise from the current 2.86 to 3.40 by end of 2013 and 3.82 by end of 2014.

The rationale for rising yields is clear. Easy monetary policies and quantitative easing from central banks around the world are meant to inflate asset prices. How could such large scale of printing money to buy bonds not result in inflation at some point? The economy is slowly improving. And yields are at historical low levels.

The 10-year note yields just 1.66%, 5-year note yields a mere 0.68%. Even the 30-year long bond yields just 2.86%. These puny yields expose bond holders to significant risks if yields rise. For the 10-year note, a 50 basis point increase in yield within the next year will result in price decline of about 4.5%, significantly more than the 2% coupon income. The 5-year note will not do that much better - a 50 bp increase in yield would decrease price by 2.5%, far more than the 0.625% coupon. The 30-year long bond will obviously be hurt the most with its longer duration. A 50 bp rise in yield will result in 9.8% decline in price far outweighing the 3% coupon.

If you expected 10-year yields to increase by 100 bps in next 2 years (the forecast mentioned above is a rise from current 1.66 to 2.73 or 106 bps by end of 2014), you would lose about 9% in price and earn 4% in coupon. Would you buy at 1.66 yield or wait for yields to rise to 2.73? To buy the notes now, buyers would want a yield closer to 2.73 now, causing an immediate jump in yield. If you expect yields to rise even more, say 5% after another couple of years, would you even buy at 2.73? As expectations of higher yields take hold, the Treasury will have to immediately pay a higher yield reflecting future expectations to entice buyers. This will push yields up quickly towards the expected highs. Given how low yields are, the amount and speed of increase could be significantly higher than in the past. Once yields start increasing, the increase will be further exacerbated by selling from holders of pre-payable mortgage backed securities to hedge their increasing durations (convexity hedging which results from the fact that as yields increase, prepayments on mortgages decrease, resulting in higher durations, which require selling of treasuries or swaps to hedge the increase in duration).

Floating rate notes do not have the interest rate risk of fixed rate bonds. So investors are not likely to demand the risk premium that they would need for fixed rate bonds. That is the rationale for the Treasury to issue Floating rate notes.

Are Yields the Easiest Shorting Opportunity of a Lifetime?

Yields are near historical lows and are universally expected to go up. With that, are U.S. yields the easiest shorting opportunity in the market? Not really, even though ETFs like TLT and IEF, and inverse ETFs like TBF, TYBS, DTYS, DLBS, GSY etc. make it easier to take long and short positions in the treasury market. As with people sometimes, markets say and do different things, and it is important to see what they are doing rather than what they are saying. In this case, if everyone is completely convinced that yields will be higher, why would anyone buy treasuries at these low yields at all?

Some of the buying could be attributed to some retail investors not being aware of potential for yields to rise or not being mindful of the risk, or their positions being inconsistent with their beliefs. Some of it could be attributed to flight for safety. However, the fact that yields are near the lows is more an indication of a lack of conviction among larger investors about the rates rising quickly and significantly. The expected inflation over 10 years as implied by yields on 10-year notes and TIPS, at about 2.40, is in the middle of the range of 2.10 to 2.60 for the past year. CPI, at 1.5%, is near the lower end of 1% to 4% range of past three years. Gold prices are lowest they have been in two years. Oil price, at 93, is in the middle of the 85 to 105 range over the last three years. These do not show an obvious immediate concern for inflation. The market is doing something different from what people in it are saying and expecting.

What about the polls predicting higher yields? Interest rates are very hard to predict, even for very smart people. Rates have been low for 5 years now. When they dropped initially, almost no one expected them to stay this low for this long. A look at polls and forecasts from the past might also be instructive in that regard. In a poll of Primary Dealers in Jan 2011, the median of forecasts from 17 of 18 primary dealers was for the 10-year note yield to climb from 3.33 percent at that time to 3.50 percent by the end of the second quarter of 2011. The average prediction in a Dec 2011 poll was for 10-year yield to rise from 1.85 at the time to 2.74 by end of 2012 (actual 2012 year-end yield was 1.76).

Even if you do see a bubble in yields ready to pop, getting the timing right can be almost impossible. The lower U.S. yields have persisted for 5 years now, even though everyone agrees they should be higher. The Japanese Government Bond market has crushed many investors who tried to short it (the widowmaker trade) and provides an example of the difficulty.

Yields could bounce around in the range they have been in recently (1.60-ish to slightly above 2%) for a far longer time than expected, unless the economy improves quickly or inflation picks up.

What to Look Out for?

The direction of interest rates depends most on the economy and what Fed does with QE program and Fed Funds rate. One of the most important indicators will be any sign that Fed is beginning to pull back on its $85 billion a month bond purchase program. That will happen before Fed actually starts increasing Fed Funds target rate. The Federal Reserve's decision, in turn, will be based on progress in employment situation, which thus becomes one of the most important indicators.

The Federal Reserve has said that it expects to maintain short-term interest rates near zero, even after it stops buying bonds, for as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5 percent, provided that medium-term inflation does not exceed 2.5 percent. A good read on this is an article on PIMCO website which also includes a list of 10 employment related indicators the Fed is watching (Telling Tape Time, Tony Crescenzi, April 2013).

Conclusions

The U.S. is not Japan. Our policy makers have learned from the Japanese experience and have not followed the same path. Also, the economy is showing signs of improvement, though more in some sectors than others. As the economic growth picks up or inflation rises, rates will increase. However, exact timing of that increase is difficult to predict with any type of certainty. Yields could bounce around in the range they have been in recently (1.60-ish to slightly above 2%) for a far longer time than expected, unless the economy improves quickly or inflation picks up. Any strategies or positions taken that depend on rates rising within a certain time frame carry a risk even though the view on the direction may be correct. Even though it is difficult to predict when yields will start increasing, it is easy to see that when yields do start increasing, the increase could be very fast and significant.

Note: The views expressed are solely my own and not of any current or past employers or affiliated organizations.

Source: What's Ahead For U.S. Interest Rates?