When bonds lose their bid

By Felix Salmon
March 2, 2011
Bill Gross, who's worried about what's going to asset prices -- both bonds and stocks -- when QE2 comes to its scheduled end on June 30. He has two main points:

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A couple of big names are out with cautious bond market views this week. For the big picture, turn to Bill Gross, who’s worried about what’s going to asset prices — both bonds and stocks — when QE2 comes to its scheduled end on June 30. He has two main points:

  • For the duration of QE2, the Fed has been buying 70% of all new Treasury-bond issuance, and foreigners have been buying the other 30%. When the Fed stops buying, who will step in to replace it? After all, with a $1.5 trillion budget deficit, there’s a lot of new supply coming.
  • Treasury yields are about 150bp too low. The yield on the 10-year Treasury is typically the same as the GDP growth rate; it’s now 150bp below that. Real 5-year Treasury yields are normally about 1.5%; they’re currently negative. And, of course, the Fed funds rate is artificially low. All of this implies that yields will rise. When that happens, it’s reasonable to assume that discount rates and credit spreads will rise along with them, driving all asset prices lower.

This need not happen immediately upon QE2′s demise, but it might: Gross foresees “immediate uncertainty and fear” come June 30, and strongly implies that he’s not going to be venturing far out the curve unless and until rates rise significantly. For the time being, he’s derisking: “PIMCO’s not sticking around,” he tells us.

Meanwhile, on the state level, David Nowakowski and Prajakta Bhide of Roubini Global Economics have a big report out called “States of Despair,” in which they estimate that muni defaults could reach $100 billion over the next five years. They do stress, however, that the recovery value on those defaults is likely to be very high — roughly 80 cents on the dollar — and that “state and local debt problems are not systemic in nature, and will not infect the financial system, though they will dampen economic recovery.”

Indeed, the report is actually bullish on the muni market: if recoveries really are 80%, then you’d break even buying the MCDX index even if the five-year default rate hits 34%. In other words, even if there are $100 billion of bond defaults over the next five years, you’d still make good money buying munis at these levels.

There’s lots of very good analysis in the report, which I’ll come back to later today. But my main takeaway is that this is clearly a market requiring good analysis — it’s not something that individual investors should buy blithely, as they have in the past, on the assumption that muni bonds are not only tax-free but also risk-free. As such, the muni market has a similar problem to that facing the Treasury market: when the biggest buyer of the bonds goes away, who will replace them? So far, the answer in both markets is very unclear.

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