The Fed has embarked on a massive expansionary quest in recent years. In 2020, total Reserve Bank assets rose from $4.2 trillion to $7.4 trillion amidst the pandemic and related government lockdown and fiscal “stimulus” policies. That was roughly three times the extraordinary growth in the consolidated balance sheet for the Reserve Banks in the 2008-2009 financial crisis. And in the latest weekly “H.4.1” release, total assets were up to $7.8 trillion – rising about a hundred billions dollars a month so far this year.
Today, short and long-term interest rates on government bonds rest near historic lows, important in part because the Fed massively expanded its purchases of government bonds. But low interest rates can’t be taken for granted, particularly if we get significantly higher inflationary expectations — which appear to have begun to sprout in recent weeks.
If we get significantly higher interest rates for that reason, the Reserve Bank balance sheet impact from losses on securities assets would arrive if the losses become “realized” – a realistic prospect if the Federal Reserve reverses course and starts selling off securities as a means of conducting monetary policy amidst higher inflationary expectations.
To hear it from liberal economists, progressive activists and Democratic politicians, there is no longer any limit to how much money government can borrow and spend and print.
In this new economy, we no longer have to worry that stock prices might climb so high, or companies take on so much debt, that a financial crisis might ensue. In this world without trade-offs, we can shut down the fossil fuel industry and transition to a zero-carbon economy without any risk to employment and economic growth. Nor is there any amount of infrastructure investment that could possibly exceed the capacity of the construction industry to absorb it.
Rest assured that the economy won’t miss a beat no matter how far or fast the minimum wage is raised. And whatever benefits are required by the always struggling middle class can be financed by raising taxes on big corporations and the undeserving rich.
Yields on most U.S. government bonds fell Monday, showing further signs of stabilizing after soaring to multi-month highs last week.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note settled at 1.444%, according to Tradeweb, down from 1.459% Friday.
Shorter-dated yields also headed lower, in a reversal from last week when investors bet that the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates earlier than previously anticipated in response to an expected burst of economic growth and inflation.
The five-year yield settled at 0.708%, from 0.775% Friday. Yields fall when bond prices rise.
A wave of selling during the past two weeks drove the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which helps set borrowing costs on everything from corporate debt to mortgages, to above 1.5%, its highest level since the pandemic began and up from 0.7% in October.
Traders said concerning dynamics were evident in a Treasury auction late last week. Demand for five- and seven-year Treasurys was weak Thursday heading into a $62 billion auction of seven-year notes and nearly evaporated in the minutes following the auction, which was one of the most poorly received that analysts could remember.
The seven-year note was sold at a 1.195% yield, or 0.043 percentage point higher than traders had expected — a record gap for a seven-year note auction, according to Jefferies LLC analysts. Primary dealers, large financial firms that can trade directly with the Fed and are required to bid at auctions, were left with about 40% of the new notes, about twice the recent average.
State and local government pension systems are increasingly dependent on investment returns, and at risk of increasingly volatile results, as funding levels remain depressed and systems increasingly start to pay out more than they take in, according to a new report from Moody’s.
The credit-ratings agency anticipates higher volatility and lower returns across asset classes in 2021 compared to 2020, even as many pension sponsors have spent the past few years lowering their assumed returns from previous loftier targets that they rarely hit.
“With persistently low interest rates for high-grade fixed-income securities, public pension systems continue to rely on highly volatile equities and alternatives to meet return targets, posing a material credit risk for some governments,” the Moody’s analysts wrote.
Absent that nightmare scenario—and most prognosticators believe science can vanquish any of COVID-19’s shape-shifting—the conventional Wall Street wisdom is for better days ahead on both the health and the economics fronts. And since escalating rates are co-dependent on an improving economy, a sunny thesis appears pretty solid.
Historically speaking, low rates like today’s are an aberration. Thus, at some point, it’s reasonable to assume they will return to normal. Or at least to higher than now, to a degree. A new normal that’s hardly towering.
But the whole thing is being framed in an odd way—i.e., that the individual retail investor is rising up against the big, bad hedge funds. This is a compelling narrative, and that’s why it’s all anyone is talking about. And I suppose that could be the takeaway after a single day of trading. But making money in markets requires knowing when to get out (or having power friends who will lend you money when you need it), and I worry about some people betting money they don’t have without realizing the risks that they’re taking on. Taking down a hedge fund is only fun when you make money at it, and we don’t know whether these day traders care so much about taking down big whales until they actually lose money while doing so. And these funds have much deeper pockets and access to a lot more capital. It’s sad to say, but the game is rigged in their favor. So, as satisfying as it may be in the short run, I don’t see it ending well.
It feels like all of these discussions about risk, class, and fairness are dancing around the real question here, a question few will dare to ask: Should retail investors be able to buy individual stocks? Or should we only be able to buy mutual funds?
Investing in individual stocks is risky, and most people would be better off owning an index fund. If they did, they’d make more money on average and face less risk at the same time. Day-trading options are even riskier. So is shorting. My mentor, Robert Merton, has likened owning an individual stock to buying a single piece of car—it’s pretty useless, especially if you don’t know what you are doing. After all, a security’s value is largely about how it contributes to your entire portfolio as a whole.
The US is running up debt like never before, and one of the reasons Washington can get away with it is because interest rates are hovering around their lowest levels ever. This raises the question—should the Treasury lock in these rates for 50 years? How about a century?
Government borrowing is under renewed scrutiny as politicians consider their third mega-spending package to support the US economy, adding to more than $3 trillion already earmarked since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Federal debt owned by the public is expected to ramp up from 81% of GDP this year to nearly 100% in 2030, the highest ratio since 1946, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections in December. That ratio could hit 180% by 2050, by far the highest debt burden the US has ever had.
Debt levels are high, but the government’s borrowing cost is low. In March, 10-year Treasury bond yields fell below 1% for the first time and they’ve only ticked up modestly since, rising to about 1.1%. That helps explain why the US has amassed so much debt and, yet, is spending less on interest expense than it did in the 1980s and 1990s. The worry is that the unprecedented mountain of debt could have to be refinanced at higher yields down the road.