After a long, steep fall, bond yields are rising fast on both sides of the Atlantic. Last week, yields on the German 10-year Bund and 10-year U.S. Treasury notes hit record highs for 2015, rising 85 basis points and 72 basis points, respectively, since their lows this year. Rather than trying to deter the selloff, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi fanned the flames on June 3, saying that European bond investors should expect greater volatility amid a stronger economic outlook and higher inflation expectations. Credit Suisse equities analysts take things a step further, forecasting that bonds are entering a multi-year bear market.
The rise in European yields is to some degree a reversal of the bizarre situation in which bond markets found themselves several weeks ago. The European Central Bank's quantitative easing program created a supply shortage for bonds, and in some cases yields fell deep into negative territory. They remained negative even as the Eurozone economy was showing signs of recovery and inflation expectations were rising. The sharp increase in yields in recent days could be seen as an overdue correction.
But Credit Suisse says that after a 32-year bull market in bonds, the recent fall in bond prices is likely to prove to be more than a mere correction. And that's at least partly because inflation might really, truly, be back. Inflation expectations have risen 35 basis points in the U.S. and 50 basis points in Europe since the beginning of the year. Oil prices have risen back up above $60 a barrel after declining to a low of $48.55 in January. Credit Suisse analysts think the increase in inflation expectations indicates that investors believe healthier demand is driving the oil price rally, which would in turn portend stronger global growth.
And it isn't just expectations of future inflation that are changing - current inflation is picking up as well. In the U.S., annual core inflation (less food and energy) currently sits at 1.8 percent - up from 1.6 percent in the 12 months through January - and wages are rising. Even if oil prices remain flat over the next 12 months, year-over-year inflation comparisons in the Eurozone will turn positive in the fourth quarter, with expectations of annual inflation of 1.6 percent. As has happened in the U.S., Credit Suisse also thinks that investors may soon start questioning just when the ECB will taper quantitative easing. That, too, would be bad for bonds. Without the ECB as a big-time buyer, the supply of bonds will increase, pushing down prices.
What effect will a bear market in bonds have on equities? That depends. If bond yields rise above a certain level, equity risk premiums will start to look less attractive. Higher rates also push up interest costs for corporations, although the bank's analysts say interest rates would have to increase by 100 basis points in the U.S. and 250 basis points in Europe before they become a noticeable drag on earnings.
Yet in many ways, bad news for bonds is good news for equities. Investors seem to turn to stocks when bond prices are falling, as changes in bond yields and equity performance have been positively correlated since 1998. Plus, an increase in inflation expectations that's driven by economic growth is usually a good sign for equities, especially when expected inflation crosses the 2 percent threshold.
Broadly speaking, Credit Suisse is overweight on cyclical stocks, as they tend to outperform when bond yields rise. The performance of European bank stocks is also highly - and positively - correlated to rising bond yields. Sectors that have high operational leverage (higher fixed costs than variable ones) and low levels of debt also perform well when bond yields rise. American utilities, telecom and beverage stocks look unattractive on that measure, while technology stocks appear poised for success.