How high are bond yields likely to rise? That question has been on the mind of investors since rates began to rise in earnest with Ben Bernanke's comments in front of Congress in late May. After starting the year at just over 1.75%, the yield on the US 10-year Treasury bond rose to just more than 2.05% in March before declining through early May, reaching its low for the year at 1.63% on May 2nd. They have been on an upward trajectory since, accelerating after Bernanke's testimony and reaching 2.88% on August 19th. Much of the rise in yields has been due to concern that the Fed will taper its purchase of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities as soon as next month and that it may end its purchases as early as next spring. If the Fed does indeed taper its purchases beginning next month, how high are yields likely to rise?
Using month-end data from January 1970 through June of this year (two data points were unavailable, those for March 1972 and May 1976), the spread, or yield difference, between 3-month T-bills and 10-year Treasuries has only been greater than 4% on two occasions and it has typically been around 1.50%. As this is being written, it is 2.78% (Chart 1). While the Fed is indeed likely to taper its bond purchases in the immediate future and may even end them next year, the probability of the Fed raising its policy rate, currently at 0%, prior to the end of next year is extremely low. We would suggest that it is unlikely prior to 2015 and PIMCO has suggested it might not occur until 2016. As such, short-term rates are likely to remain extremely low over the next two years. The widest spread between 3-month T-bills and the 10-year bond occurred in the 3rd quarter of 1982, as short rates plunged from record highs as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker's tightening campaign began to bring inflation under control (Chart 2). With the 3-month T-Bill currently at 0.05%, we can safely rule out a large decline in short rates that will push the spread higher. That means to push the spread to 4% we would need the yield on the 10-year bond to rise just north of 4%. It's hard to see what would push the 10-year yield north of 4%. Inflation remains well anchored as the velocity of money is extremely low, with most of the money the Fed has printed remaining deposited at the Fed in the form of excess bank reserves. More than 82% of the US money supply was on deposit with the Fed as of the end of July. From January of 1959 through the end of 2007, the average was just 6.18%. Economic growth remains weak with the growth in each of the last three quarters below 2% on an annualized basis. Importantly, even as the Fed tapers, declining budget deficits will lead to reduced debt issuance and the Fed's purchases are likely to remain a relatively consistent percentage of issuance over the next six to 12 months. Finally, from 2004 through 2006, when the US economy was in significantly better condition than it is currently, the average yield on the 10-year Treasury was just about 4.50%.
All of the above would suggest there is little likelihood that the 10-year yield will rise above 4% anytime in the near future. In fact, we would suggest that the yield on the 10-year is unlikely to rise above 3.50% over the next 12-18 months and we consider a move to 4% or slightly higher as an unlikely event over the next two years. If we are correct, more than half the increase in yields is already behind us. It has been a sharp and painful move higher, but continued monetary ease coupled with weak growth is likely to place a cap on the 10-year and something below 4%.