Mixed Messages from The Fed and the Bond Markets

It’s conventional opinion that the Fed will begin to raise its policy rate by the end of 2015, and continue raising rates for the next couple years. In the FT, Larry Summers argues that this will be a mistake. And he observes that bond markets don’t seem to share the conventional wisdom: “Long term bond markets are telling us that real interest rates are expected to be close to zero in the industrialised world over the next decade.”

The Summers column inspired me to take a look at bond prices and flesh out this observation. It is straightforward to calculate how much the value of a bond change in response to a change in interest rates. So by looking at the current yields on bonds of different maturities, we can see what expectations of future rate changes are consistent with profit-maximizing behavior in bond markets. [1]

The following changes shows the yields of Treasury bonds of various maturities, and the capital loss for each bond from a one-point rise in yield over the next year. (All values are in percentage points.)

 Maturity Yield as of July 2015 Value Change from 1-Point Rise 30 year 3.07 -17.1 20 year 2.77 -13.9 10 year 2.32 -8.4 5 year 1.63 -4.6 1 year 0.30 -0.0

So if the 30-year rate rises by one point over the next year, someone who just bought a 30-year bond will suffer a 17 percent capital loss.

It’s clear from these numbers that Summers is right. If, over the next couple of years, interest rates were to “normalize” to their mid-90s levels (about 3 points higher than today), long bonds would lose half their value. Obviously, no one would hold bonds at today’s yields if they thought there was an appreciable chance of that happening.

We can be more precise. For any pair of bonds, the ratio of the difference in yields to the difference in capital losses from a rate increase, is a measure of the probability assigned by market participants to that increase. For example, purchasing a 20-year bond rather than a 30-year bond means giving up 0.3 percentage points of yield over the next year, in return for losing only 14 percent rather than 17 percent if there’s a general 1-point increase in rates. Whether that looks like a good or bad tradeoff will depend on how you think rates are likely to change.

For any pair of bonds, we can calculate the change in interest rates (across the whole yield curve) that would keep the overall return just equal between them. Using the average yields for July, we get:

30-year vs 20-year: +0.094%

30-year vs. 10-year: +0.086%

30-year vs. 5-year: +0.115%

20-year vs. 10-year +0.082%

20-year vs. 5 year: + 0.082%

Treasury bonds seem to be priced consistent with an expected tenth of a percent or so increase in interest rates over the next year.

In other words: If you buy a 30 year bond rather than a 20-year one, or a 20-year rather than 10-year, you will get a higher interest rate. But if it turns out that market rates rise by about 0.1 percentage points (10 basis points) over the next year, the greater capital losses on longer bonds will just balance their higher yields. So if you believe that interest rates in general will be about 10 basis points higher a year from now than they are now, you should be just indifferent between purchasing Treasuries of different maturities. If you expect a larger increase in rates, long bonds will look overpriced and you’ll want to sell them; if you expect a smaller increase in rates than this, or a decrease, then long bonds will look cheap to you and you’ll want to buy them. [2]

A couple of things to take from this.

First, there is the familiar Keynesian point about the liquidity trap. When long rates are low, even a modest increase implies very large capital losses for holders of long bonds. Fear of these losses can set a floor on long rates well above prevailing short rates. This, and not the zero lower bound per se, is the “liquidity trap” described in The General Theory.

Second,  compare the implied forecast of a tenth of a point increase in rates implied by today’s bond prices, to the forecasts in the FOMC dot plot. The median member of the FOMC expects an increase of more than half a point this year, 2 points by the end of 2016, and 3 points by the end of 2017. So policymakers at the Fed are predicting a pace of rate increases more than ten times faster than what seems to be incorporated into bond prices.

If the whole rate structure moves in line with the FOMC forecasts, the next few years will see the biggest losses in bond markets since the 1970s. Yet investors are still holding bonds at what are historically very low yields. Evidently either bond market participants do not believe that Fed will do what it says it will, or they don’t believe that changes in policy rate will have any noticeable effect on longer rates.

And note: The belief that long rates unlikely to change much, may itself prevent them from changing much. Remember, for a 30-year bond currently yielding 3 percent, a one point change in the prevailing interest rate leads to a 17 point capital loss (or gain, in the case of a fall in rates). So if you have even a moderately strong belief that 3 percent is the most likely or “normal” yield for this bond, you will sell or buy quickly when rates depart much from this. Which will prevent such departures from happening, and validate beliefs about the normal rate. So we shouldn’t necessarily expect to see the whole rate structure moving up and down together. Rather, long rates will stay near a conventional level (or at least above a conventional floor) regardless of what happens to short rates.

This suggests that we shouldn’t really be thinking about a uniform shift in the rate structure. (Though it’s still worth analyzing that case as a baseline.) Rather, an increase in rates, if it happens, will most likely be confined to the short end. The structure of bond yields seems to fit this prediction. As noted above, the yield curve at longer maturities implies an expected rate increase on the order of 10 basis points (a tenth of a percentage point), the 10-year vs 5 year, 10 year vs 1 year, and 5 year vs 1 year bonds imply epected increases of 18, 24 and 29 basis points respectively. This is still much less than dot plot, but it is consistent with idea that bond markets expect any rate increase to be limited to shorter maturities.

In short: Current prices of long bonds imply that market participants are confident that rates will not rise substantially over the next few years. Conventional wisdom, shared by policymakers at the Fed, says that they will. The Fed is looking at a two point increase over the next year and half, while bond rates imply that it will take twenty years. So either Fed won’t do what it says it will, or it won’t affect long rates, or bondholders will get a very unpleasant surprise. The only way everyone can be right is if trnasmission from policy rate to long rates is very slow — which would make the policy rate an unsuitable tool for countercyclical policy.

This last point is something that has always puzzled me about standard accounts of monetary policy. The central bank is supposed to be offsetting cyclical fluctuations by altering the terms of loan contracts whose maturities are much longer than typical business cycle frequencies. Corporate bonds average about 10 years, home mortgages, home mortgages of course close to 30. (And housing seems to be the sector most sensitive to policy changes.) So either policy depends on systematically misleading market participants, to convince them that cyclical rate changes are permanent; or else monetary policy must work in some completely different way than the familiar interest rate channel.

[1] In the real world things are more complicated, both because the structure of expectations is more complex than a scalar expected rate change over the next period, and because bonds are priced for their liquidity as well as for their return.

[2] I should insist in passing, for my brothers and sisters in heterodoxy, that this sort of analysis does not depend in any way on “consumers” or “households” optimizing anything, or on rational expectations. We are talking about real markets composed of profit-seeking investors, who certainly hold some expectations about the future even if they are mistaken.

Guest Post on Portugal

(In comments to one of the posts here on Greece, Tiago Lemos Peixoto posted some observations on the situation in Portugal. In response to some questions from me, he sent the message below. We don’t hear much in the US about the the political-economic situation in Portugal, and I thought Tiago’s discussion was interesting enough to post on the front page. I’ve posted his original comment first, and then then the followup. My questions to him are in italics. JWM.)

I am a 37 year old Portuguese, born merely 4 years after a semi fascist dictatorship that furthered our already geographical peripheral position to one of political isolation. We joined the EEC 10 years after that, while still trying to recover from the aftermath of the democratic transition on the promise of cooperation, solidarity, prosperity, and a helping hand in developing our economy to the european standards of living.

Now, let’s forget for a while the fact that such a thing never happend. Instead of modernizing and improving our competitiveness, the EEC brought in fact production quotas to our industries and agriculture, and effected a great many deals that turned out to be unilateral. One example out of many would be our milk and dairy production, which is capable of producing in vast quantities, but due to said quotas are, to this day, often destroyed and wasted so that we don’t outperform.

We didn’t readily see that, however. Along with our joining in 1986 came communitary funds which were generously abundant, almost trickle down. Why would we think about our lack of competitiveness when Europe paid our producers subsidies to cut down excess? Who could really complain when great and bloated artistic endeavours, ambitious new infrastructures were being developed via communitary funds? Or with the tearing down of the old borders, the freedom to move within anywhere in the Schengen space? After the years of dictatorship and extreme poverty, after all that crippling isolation, it seemed like the dawn of a new age. And there are striking paralels to Greece here as well, what with their being a peripheral country who survived a period of dictatorship.

Add to that the promise of the €. Now, that one was harder to sell, since it actually doubled a lot of the prices, but hey, all seemed to be going so well, surely it would all adjust soon, and this is just another step to an unified Europe of progress.

That’s what we’ve been pretty much conditioned to believe, and that is the mindset that made people equate the European project with prosperity. For the Greeks, it’s very likely that any Greek between 50 and 60 grew up in a dictatorship, and same goes to every Portuguese between 40 and 90. Adults like myself grew up with the European Union and its promise of a better world and barely know any world outside of it. And communitary funds, even if they’re all almost universally badly applied, worked like a Skinner’s box of sorts.

And now, they threaten us, the adults who barely know a world outside EEC/EU, the young adults who grew up on the possibilities given by Erasmus projects, the older people who grew up or lived through overt dictatorships, that all this can go away. And that with it comes fire and brimstone, that we HAD to join the € because our currency was too weak (and what better argument to NOT join the Euro?) and would be even more worthless if we were to readopt it. They throw the ghosts of market anathema at us, “leaving the Euro would be catastrophic, the markets react just from your mere mention of it, you really want to go back to those bad old days? Do you really want to be out of the cool kids’ club, and have no EU funding for your arts association anymore?”

That is why we fear the alternative, even as we begin to see the bars that hold our gilded cage.

Is there any kind of organized challenge to austerity there? Is there any kind of left opposition party?

Well, there is, and there isn’t. The most consistent and organized opposition is the local Communist Party (PCP), which commands a respectable position in parliament (about 11%). What’s more significant, the vote on PCP has been relatively unchanged since the 1974 revolution, so they’re a familiar presence in our democracy, and relatively well respected outside of its circles for the fact that they were the “vanguard” against Salazar’s regime. They’re incredibly well organized and have the support of the majority of the unions. They’re also relatively less “orthodox” than something like the KKE, for the most part. However, despite all this, their voting base is incredibly stable for better and for worse.

Then there’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc or BE) which could be seen as our own Syriza: a broad front of minor leftist parties of different traditions, disgruntled communists and modern socialists which formed 15 years ago and was on the rise in parliament. They took a huge hit in the last elections, though, through a combination of leadership bickerings, lack of cohesive message, and the center left Socialist Party (PS) being able to sideline them via pushing BE’s social issues agenda on issues like women and LGBT rights. Many saw BE a bit redundant after PS pushed those issues through parliament. They managed to have around 12% at their best, got 5-6% on the last election.

And that’s the extent of organized opposition. BE and PCP do work together a lot better both in parliament and on the streets than in other countries and are a lot closer than say, KKE and Syriza. But whereas PCP’s strength and weakness lies in the rigidity of its speech, BE has failed to have an open discussion on issues like debt restructuring and the like.

Social movements were strong for a while in 2010-2012, and were a ineffectual, uncohesive mess after that, I’m sad to say. There was a strong grass roots response to the austerity packages with absolutely gigantic demonstrations occuring in 2011-2012. But there was also failure to plainly articulate a political alternative, as well as the prevalent “sibling rivalries” that so often fracture these kinds of movements. The government and mainstream media narrative effectively pushed back via Thatcher’s “TINA”, and it’s not so much that people bought the narrative, but they’re failing to see anyone present anything else.

Dairy has been an issue in Greece too, it’s specifically mentioned in the new agreement. It seems as tho the crude mercantilist arguments, which I think mostly miss the larger picture, really may be the story in agriculture.

There is an apparent mercantilist side to the way that the EU is constructed. In many ways, it’s a paradox: its current ruling minds come from that neoliberal school of Thatcher and Reagan policies, but the actual construct is almost neo-colonial, with very apparenty peripheries and semi peripheries forming around the German epicenter. Any analysis of trade relations will show Germany as either the no. 1 or no. 2 exporter to other European countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, all of those have Germany in their top 2 of imports. Which is, I believe, all the more significant when you cross that data with the prevalence of production quotas.

Though I’d argue that in Portugal’s specific case, these quotas end up helping Spain, especially in terms of food products. Germany’s our second larger import origin, but we import a staggering 27% from Spain alone. Now, though I’m no economist and my field lies in History, I do believe this is a rabbit hole worth chasing.

Has there been significant liberalization in Portugal over the past five years? Rolling back of labor laws, weakening of unions, cutting back pensions, etc.? In other words, has the crisis worked?

It has. Completely. Nearly anything that could be privatized, including energy, our airfields, our air company, our telecommunications grids our energetic infrastructure, our mail service, all have been sold off at the time we’re speaking. It’s worth mentioning that, while it could be argued that there were severe deficiencies in the management of these companies, nearly all of them actually turned a profit. So, selling off, say, our energy for €3 billion 5 years ago stops being an impressive feat when we see that the company’s profits were at about €1 billion/year, and we’d have €2 billion more at our disposal by not selling.

Collective bargaining took a major hit. Most new jobs are being created on a temporary basis. People have in fact been “temps” without social welfare benefits for more than ten years now in many cases (this did not start with the crisis, but did speed up considerably). Others work under weekly renewable temp contracts, which can prolong themselves for months. Our minimum wage is net €505/month, but many make less than that by working 6.5 hour long “part time” jobs for €300-400. Any company can hire you and sign temp contracts with you for a period of 3 years during which the rules are more or less “at will”; firing you sometime during those 3 years, waiting a couple of months and then calling you back to rehire you (obviously resetting that 3 year grace period) is a very common occurence. Unpaid internships are the norm, with some of them taking on surreal form. Unpaid internships for bartender or hairdresser are things we can see on job websites and ads papers.
Unemployment is predictably high, currently at 14% after a 18% peak. We should account for the fact that Portugal measures unemployment by the number of people who have enrolled in our unemployment centers. Which are ineffective to Kafkaesque levels, often summoning you by letter to interviews which have already happened by the time you received that letter, at which point you’re out of the center (and the stats) and have to justify your absence or wait for four months before you can enroll again. Add to those numbers the fact that half a million left the country in the last 5 years. In a country of 10 million, that means 5% of our population, most of them college educated youths between 20 and 35 is absent from the active population.

But despite all that, despite the 6% GDP contraction, or the fact that the austerity measures actually skyrocketed the debt from 95% to 130%, we’re told (in an election year, no less) that we can rest assured in the fact that we’re not Greece (which if one wants to argue that we’ve been put under a slow burn as opposed to Greece’s scorched earth can be a point I do concede), and that “though the Portuguese are worse off, the country is better” (actual quote from Luis Montenegro, Parliamentary leader to the majority party), and that the worst has passed, and austerity is a thing of the past… though they need to make an extra 500 millions in pension cuts this year alone.