In contrast to the dismal forecasting record of mainstream economists over the last few years, the forecasts that I have made regarding the dollar, oil, commodities, precious metals, global stock markets, inflation, and the U.S. economy have all come to pass. In addition, unlike the top economic oracles on Wall Street and in Washington, I can also point to similar accuracy in predicting the bursting of growing bubbles, first with technology in the late 1990’s, and more recently with real estate. However, my long-standing prediction about the fate of the bond market has fared much worse. I still do believe this prediction was not wrong, but simply premature.
For years I have predicted that the falling dollar, persistent trade deficit, and the lack of domestic savings would combine to send long-term interest rates sharply higher. The effects of these fundamental drivers would undermine the Fed’s efforts to lower short-term rates and compound the problems for the housing market and the U.S. economy. Yet as of today, the yield on the thirty-year Treasury bond still stands below 4.5%, within 40 basis points of a generational low. Either this is the one piece of the puzzle that I somehow got wrong, or other factors are working to temporarily confound fundamental economics and prop up the bond market. As you might imagine, I am confident that it is the latter and consider the U.S. Treasury market to be the mother of all bubbles.
I have often said that the only thing worse than holding U.S. dollars is holding promises to be paid U.S. dollars at some distant point in the future. However, this is precisely what U.S. Treasuries represent. Given all of the inflation that already exists, and all of the additional inflation likely to be created over that time period, why would anyone pay par value for the right to receive $1,000 in thirty years in exchange for a mere 4.5% coupon? Although it looks like the sucker bet of the century, the fools have been lining up to buy. Alan Greeenspan called this a “conundrum.” I simply call it mass delusion of the same variety that brought us pets.com, and $800,000 tract homes in the middle of the California desert.
Just like dot coms or real estate, today’s bond prices reflect a fantasy world. In this “Bizarro” reality, the dollar will remain strong, inflation will stay low, economic strength will persist uninterrupted, and Fed policy will be predominantly hawkish for the foreseeable future. But when the fog finally lifts, and investors come to grips with a sagging dollar, recession, gaping budget and current account deficits, and the most accommodative Fed imaginable, bond prices will collapse, sending long-term interest rates skyrocketing. Unfortunately, for investors who hitched their wagons to benign government CPI statistics and ignored real world evidence of inflation [rapid money supply growth, surging gold, oil and other commodity prices (wheat and soy beans prices catapulted to record highs this week), the sinking dollar, and actual increases in consumer prices,] the losses will be excruciatingly real.
It is important to remember that for every borrower there has to be a lender. For example, if a homeowner wants to refinance his mortgage, there must be someone willing to loan him the money. Practically everyone on Wall Street is hailing the Fed’s recent rate cuts because they believe it will allow strapped ARM holders to refinance into more affordable mortgages. However, while low rates are great for borrowers, they are lousy for lenders. Why would anyone want to offer a thirty-year mortgage at an artificially depressed interest rate? As soon as the Fed raises rates again, as it clearly intends to do once the crisis ends, all that low yielding mortgage paper will collapse in value. Lenders can surely figure this out and will therefore refuse to volunteer to be the patsy in this plan.
Eventually, the world’s lenders will reach similar conclusions with respect to U.S. Treasuries. No matter how low the Fed funds or discount rates get, private savers around the world will simply refuse to lend given the inherent risks and paltry returns. At some point the sheer absurdity of holding long-term, low-yielding receipts for future payments of depreciating U.S. dollars will be apparent to all. After all, it was not too long ago that investors thought holding subprime mortgages from financially strapped borrowers who could not possibly repay them was also a great idea — so great in fact that many leveraged themselves to the hilt to buy them. Judging from the extremely poor demand at this week’s $9 billion auction of thirty-year Treasury bonds, the day of reckoning may not be too far off.
For now there are a host of factors temporarily propping up the Treasury bond market, such as unrealistically sanguine inflation expectations, foreign central bank and hedge fund buying, short covering, credit spreads, problems in the mortgage market, recession fears, and flight to what is falsely perceived to represent the ultimately in safety and quality. When these props give way, look out below! As we have learned from previous bubbles they can inflate for a long time before they burst. As this one has been inflating longer then most it has amassed quite a bit of air. When it ultimately finds its pin the popping sound will be deafening.