Why Interest Rates Will Rise in 2010

Includes: TBT, TMV
by: Daryl Montgomery

While stocks were rallying, long-term U.S. treasuries were selling off sharply and interest rates climbing on December 21st. The rally was particularly noteable because 10-year bonds were selling down more strongly that 30-years - the opposite of the normal pattern.

As part of its quantitative easing program, the U.S. Fed was purchasing 10-year treasuries up to October 31st of this year, and this kept their yield artificially low. This trade now seems to be unwinding. Interest rates on consumer loans in the U.S., including mortgages and credit cards, are usually tied to the the 10-year treasury rate. Higher rates will dampen consumer spending going forward and this will be a negative for the economy in 2010. Investors can take advantage of rising rates, though, by buying ETFs that short longer-term bonds.

Long-term rates need to be examined in context. The yield spread, or the difference in interest rates, between them and short-dated paper provides significant information. The yield spread between 30-year treasuries and the 3-month t-bill has gotten to around 4.50%. This is much larger than normal. The spread was even bigger this June and in 1992. In the last two recessions in the early 1990s and 2000s, yield spreads didn't peak until about 18-months after the recession was over. They already got to those previous peak levels this June, during the recent recession. This indicates that the peak in the current cycle is going to be higher than it was previously. Assuming the current recession ended in July, as would be inferred from government GDP figures, this would indicate that there will be a peak in the yield spread around January 2011. Note that this is not the same as a peak in rates. The spread will narrow if long-term rates continue to go up, but short-term rates go up even faster.

While it looks like long-term rates are going to be higher in 2010, the exact amount is not predictable from yield spread analysis. From a technical perspective, the 10-year treasury will have a significant breakout if its yield rises above 4.00% and stays there. For the 30-year treasury, the key rate is 5.00%. Possible interest rate targets for the 10-year after a breakout are 4.75% to 5.50% and for the 30-year 6.00% to 7.00%. A breakout is not taking place just yet however. As of now, some time in the first couple of months of 2010 looks like the most likely time frame for this to occur. Investors who want to short 7 to 10 year treasuries can buy TBF (100% short), PST (200% short) or TYO (300% short). Investors who want to short 20 to 30 year treasuries can buy TBT (200% short) or TMV (300% short of 30-years only).

A wide yield spread between short and long term bonds is usually cited as an indication of strong future economic growth. Others say it is an indication of rising inflation expectations. Both views can be correct. The pattern is caused by central banks pumping substantial amounts of liquidity into the financial system. This shows up in the economy and inflation at different points in time. Liquidity first pushes up the stock market (we have already seen that), next impacts the economy, and then shows up as inflation. When there is overlap between the economic growth and inflation phases, stagflation results. It can take as much as three to four years for the first wave of inflation to peak. That would take us to at least 2012 in the current cycle - so we have a long interest rate rally ahead of us.

Disclosure: Long TBT and TMV