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Monday, January 12, 2009

Ambrose Evans-Prichard Explains the Bond Bubble

Ambrose Evans-Prichard nails it.

The tricky part, as always, is the timing of it all.

The Bond Bubble is an Accident Waiting to Happen:

“The bond vigilantes slumber. As the greatest sovereign bond bubble of all time rolls into 2009, investors are clinging to an implausible assumption that China and Japan will provide enough capital to keep the happy game going for ever.

They are betting too that debt deflation will overwhelm the effects of near-zero interest rates across the G10 and nullify a £2,000bn fiscal blast in the US, China, Japan, Britain, and Europe.

Above all, they are betting that the Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke will fail to print enough banknotes to inflate the US money supply, despite his avowed intent to do so.

Yields on 10-year US Treasuries have fallen to 2.4pc – a level that was unseen even in the Great Depression. This is "return-free risk", said bond guru Jim Grant.

It is much the same story across the world. Yields are 1.3pc in Japan, 3.02pc in Germany, 3.13pc in Britain, 3.26pc in Chile, 3.47pc in France, and 5.56pc in Brazil.

"Get out of Treasuries. They are very, very expensive," said Mohamed El-Erian, the investment chief at the Pimco, the world's top bond fund, in a Barron's article last week.

It is lazy to think that China, Japan, the petro-powers and the surplus states of emerging Asia will continue to amass foreign reserves, recycling their treasure into the US and European bond markets.

These countries are themselves bleeding as exports collapse. Most face capital flight. The whole process that fed the bond boom from 2003 to 2008 is now going into reverse.

Woe betide any investor who misjudges the consequences of this strategic shift.

Russia has lost 27pc of its $600bn reserves since August. The oil and metals crash has left the oligarchs prostrate. China's reserves fell $15bn in October. Beijing has begun to fret about an exodus of hot money – disguised as foreign investment in plant. The exchange regulator is muttering about "abnormal" capital flows out of the country.

China's $1,900bn stash of foreign bonds is a by-product of holding down the yuan to boost exports.

This mercantilist ploy is no longer necessary, since the currency is weakening. Beijing needs the money at home in any case to prop up the Chinese economy – now in trouble. Even Japan has slipped into trade deficit.

Clearly, the US and European governments cannot rely on Asia to plug the $3,500bn hole in their budgets this year.

Asians are just as likely to be net sellers of their bonds. Which implies that central banks may have to "monetize" our deficits.

James Montier, from Société Générale, has examined US bonds back to 1798. Yields have never been this low before, except under war controls in the 1940s when the price was set by dictate.

That episode is not a happy precedent. The Fed drove the 10-year bond down to 2.25pc, much as it is doing today with mortgage bonds. It helped America win World War Two, but ended in tears for bond holders in 1946 when inflation jumped to 18pc.

Mr Montier said yields have averaged 4.5pc over two centuries, with a real return of around 2pc. By that benchmark, the market is now banking on a decade of deflation.

Investors have drawn a false parallel with Japan's Lost Decade, when bond yields kept falling, forgetting that Tokyo waited seven years before resorting to the printing press. Mr Bernanke has no such inhibitions. He has hit the nuclear button in advance.

"Today's yields are woefully short of the estimated fair value under normal conditions. There maybe a (short-term) speculative case for buying bonds. However, I am an investor, not a speculator," he said

Of course, we may already be so deep into debt deflation that bonds will rally regardless. Fresh data suggest that Japan's economy contracted at a 12pc annual rate in the fourth quarter of 2008; the US, Germany, and France shrank at a 6pc rate, and Britain shrank at 5pc.

If sustained, these figures are worse than 1930, though not as bad as the killer year of 1931. The UK contraction from peak to trough in the Slump was 5pc. Gordon Brown will be lucky to get off so lightly.

The Fed's December minutes reek of fear. The Bernanke team is no longer sure that stimulus will gain traction in time.

The Fed's "Monetary Multiplier" has collapsed, falling below 1. This is unthinkable. We are in a liquidity trap.

So yes, printing money is not as easy as it looks, but to conclude that the Fed cannot bring about inflation is a leap too far.

The Fed has only just started to debauch in earnest, buying $600bn of mortgage bonds to force home loans down to 4.5pc. US mortgage rates have dropped 150 basis points in two months.

My tentative guess is that Bernanke's blitz will "work" – perhaps later this year. Markets will start to look beyond deflation. They will remember that the Fed is boosting its balance sheet from $800bn to $3,000bn, and that it sits on an overhang of bonds that must be sold again.

"The euthanasia of the rentier" will wear off, to borrow from Keynes. That is when the next crisis begins.”


peterthepainter said...

do you think he meant 'anaesthesia' of the rentier? euthanasia is where they put them all to death...

Anonymous said...

Peter may be right on this one, seeing as euthanasia (youth in Asia?) never "wears off".
Actually, the youth in Asia may just save the Boomers' bacon, ten or twenty years from now...

Anonymous said...

Your right. The tricky part is the timing

Anonymous said...

I think everyone will be surprised at how long this bond bubble will last.

I disagree with Evans-Prichard on one thing. No matter how many mortgages Bernanke buys, and no matter how low mortgage rates go, he cannot change the fact that the vast majority of distressed mortgages have negative equity.
The "hair of the dog" philosophy isn't going to work this time like it did in 2002. We are most definitely in a liquidity trap. Those that believe in the "all powerful Fed" model need only look at Japan's lost decade (and that was without a worldwide economic crisis like we now have)

The subprime crisis is nothing. Wait until the Alt-A, Prime, and Jumbo-prime resets start in earnest. That market dwarfs subprime and it's not even close.

The bond market is foreseeing the deflationary depression. I wouldn't bet against it.

Anonymous said...

The current economic systemic predicament unfolding is like a frozen PC. It can still be useful but needs to be rebooted:

New currency accompanied with new centrally assigned asset values....most of the slaves (human resources) are still able & willing to work for their regular fiat pittance (that will be inflated until it crashes again in about 80 years) within a system that gives them enough reason to keep groundhog day going and going and going aal the while the robber barrons continue to accumulate & monopolize (emphasis on Asia) the real resources and wealth of the world & even the universe, if that proves doable.

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