(Bloomberg) — Around the world, bond traders are finally beginning to realize that the rock bottom yields of recent history may be gone forever.
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A surprisingly resilient US economy, ballooning debt and deficits, and mounting fears that the Federal Reserve will keep interest rates high are pushing yields on the longest-running Treasury note to their highest levels in more than a decade.
This has prompted a rethink of what the ‘normal’ looks like in the treasury market. At Bank of America Corp., strategists warn investors to prepare for a return to the “5% world” that prevailed before the global financial crisis ushered in a prolonged era of near-zero US interest rates. BlackRock and Pacific Investment Management say inflation could remain stubbornly above the Fed’s target, leaving room for long-term yields to rise.
“There is a significantly higher repricing in the longer-term interest rates,” said Jean Boivin, a former Bank of Canada official who now heads the BlackRock Investment Institute.
“The market is moving more to the view that there will be long-term inflationary pressures despite the recent advance,” he said. “The overall uncertainty will remain the story for the next few years, and that requires greater compensation for owning long-term bonds.”
It’s a sharp break in markets that last year began preparing for a recession that would prompt the Federal Reserve to ease monetary policy, raising hopes of a sharp recovery from a brutal 2022 that sent Treasurys to their deepest losses since at least the early 1970s.
While higher rates will soften the blow by boosting interest payments to bondholders, they also threaten to affect everything from consumer spending and home sales to skyrocketing technology stock prices. On top of that, they will increase the US government’s financing costs, exacerbating a deficit that already forces it to borrow about $1 trillion this quarter to cover the gap.
The sell-off since last week has hit long bonds harder and wiped out the broader Treasury market’s gains this year, putting it on track for a third straight annual loss. It also dragged down stock prices, which had risen strongly until this month amid expectations about the Fed’s path.
The latest turn is likely to be off base, and some forecasters on Wall Street are still calling for an economic downturn that should put downward pressure on consumer prices.
Moreover, inflation expectations have held firm this year as the pace slowed sharply from last year’s highs, a sign that the market expects it to eventually ease closer to the Fed’s 2% target. The personal consumption expenditures index, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, rose at a 3% pace in June. This is down from as much as 7% in the previous year.
But many now expect a soft decline that will leave inflation as the dominant risk. This was underscored this week by the release of the minutes of the FOMC meeting from July, when officials expressed concern that more rate hikes may still be needed. They also noted that the Fed may continue to reduce its bond holdings even as they decide to ease interest rates to make policy less restrictive, threatening to keep another drag in the bond market.
That helped push Treasury yields higher for the sixth consecutive day on Thursday, with the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield rising to 4.33%. That’s close to the October peak, which was the highest since 2007. The 30-year return was 4.42%, a 12-year high. The yield trimmed the jump on Friday.
Broader economic shifts are driving speculation that low rates – and inflation – in the post-crisis period were anomalies. Among them: demographics that may raise wages as elderly workers retire; away from globalization. And it leads to counter the global warning to turn away from fossil fuels.
“If inflation is going to be flat and high, I don’t want to own long-term bonds,” said Kathryn Kaminsky, chief research strategist and portfolio manager at AlphaSimplex Group.
“People will need more term premiums to own long-term bonds,” she said, referring to the higher payments investors typically demand at the risk of parting with their money for a longer period.
Even with the recent hike in yields, though, it’s no longer such a premium. In fact, it remains negative as long-term rates remain lower than short-term – an inversion of the yield curve that is usually seen as a harbinger of recession. But that gap is starting to narrow, which has lowered the New York Fed’s measure of the term premium to around 0.56% from nearly 1% in mid-July.
This upward pressure has also been exacerbated by US federal spending, which has led to an influx of new debt sales to plug deficits even as the economy remains at – or near – full employment. At the same time, the Bank of Japan’s decision to finally allow the 10-year yield there to rise is likely to dampen Japanese demand for US Treasuries.
BlackRock’s Boivin says a major shift is underway in the world’s central banks. He said that for years they have kept interest rates well below the rate considered neutral to stimulate their economies and stave off deflationary risks.
He said, “Now that has been reversed.” “So even if the long-term neutral rate does not change, central banks will maintain a policy above that neutral rate to ward off inflationary pressures.”
(Updates to add Friday trading.)
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