Sunday, 29 November 2009

The Next Bubble: Are We There Yet?

My previous two posts make it clear that all the conditions are in place for a bond bubble: strong fundamentals, technical momentum, and a mechanism for positive feedback. But these conditions are merely necessary; they are not in themselves sufficient to generate or identify a bubble.

Nonetheless there are certain indicators that suggest we may be entering bubble territory.

Let’s start by looking at the fundamentals again. One sign that a market has transitioned from boom to bubble is when the fundamentals change from bullish to bearish, but prices keep rising. I believe that this is true for the bond market. Let’s consider each of the factors I identified in my earlier post, in order:

1. Monetary policy seems to have regressed in recent years. In particular, central banks are no longer strict inflation-targeters; they have become asset-price-targeters instead1. Central banks are also less independent than before2. Finally, central banks have explicitly moved from trying to head off crises, to merely reacting to them3. This reaction invariably takes the form of overly easy monetary policy, since policy-makers and politicians alike seem incapable of accepting short-term pain for long-term gain. Each of these is a backward step, in my opinion.

2. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the ‘end of history’, the US has become embroiled in two expensive new wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, entitlement spending (especially social security and health care for retiring baby boomers) will put a significant burden on the government’s fiscal position in the years to come. And a dysfunctional political process renders this trajectory very difficult to change.

3. The momentum towards lower global trade barriers seems to have turned; there are ugly signs everywhere of growing protectionism, higher tariffs, and incipient trade wars.

4. China may not export disinflation for much longer. Western politicians, pundits and plutocrats have been unanimous in calling for China to consume more and/or to revalue its currency upward, in order to reduce the global imbalances that (supposedly) lay behind the recent crisis. Either of these shifts (an increase in Chinese domestic consumption or an increase in the RMB/USD exchange rate) would be dramatically inflationary for the United States4.

5. The commodity supercycle is now in its bullish phase.

6. Increased regulation (for which there is plenty of momentum) could see a rollback of innovation, especially financial innovation.

Now, figuring out the impact of (changes in) fundamentals on asset prices is a tricky business. It’s very difficult to know how important any given factor is in determining bond yields; it’s also very difficult to know the extent to which any given factor has already been priced into the bond market.

Fortunately, my argument does not depend on my ability to perform either of these tricks. My point is much simpler. Every single fundamental factor that has driven the 30-year decline in bond yields has either weakened appreciably, or reversed direction. Yet bond yields continue to decline!

What’s going on here?

Well, for starters, many of the technical forces I identified earlier are still in play: Bretton Woods II (developing country exporters continue to finance the US twin deficits); baby boomer portfolio changes (stocks as a retirement haven are understandably less attractive now then they were a few years ago); and post-crisis risk aversion (unemployment and consumption data suggest we are still not out of the woods).

But in addition to these relatively ‘benign’ technicals, some rather more dangerous forces have come into effect.

First, ‘reflexive feedback’ has kicked in, as Wednesday’s post makes clear. Low long bond yields create the justification for the Fed to keep overnight rates low. And low overnight rates create the motivation for investment banks to buy long bonds.

Second, the ‘greater fool theory’ has kicked in: there’s certainly an element of it in foreign central bank purchases of US government debt. Various acronymic entities like the BOJ, SAFE, ADIA and so on know full well that if they don’t take down Treasury’s flood of new supply, their existing holdings will be mullered.

(As an aside, the fact that foreign CBs are price-insensitive buyers is often quoted as a justification for the low level of yields, whereas in fact it is a symptom that yields are in non-economic territory.)

Third, commentators have begun to emerge claiming that “this time it’s different”, most notably those whose belief in American exceptionalism blinds them to the parallels with Britain a century ago or Spain somewhat further back.

A fourth suggestive indicator is the level of supply. All true bubbles are characterized by dramatic increases in supply, which seem to have no impact on prices (until of course the bubble collapses). The Treasury market clearly embodies this dynamic: the August 10-year note, for example, had a float (after reopenings) of 67 billion. That’s more than the entire government of debt of say Switzerland or Australia. Just one single bond.

Put it all together, and the conclusion is obvious: we are entering a regime where fundamentals don’t matter any more; a regime in which technicals, feedback and short-term (institutional) considerations dominate the price action; a regime where supply has crossed the line from the impressive to the insane. In short, a bubble.

Footnotes

# 1 We used to have a Greenspan put; now we have a Bernanke put; but there was never a Volcker put. I explain the link between Fed policy and asset price bubbles here.

# 2 Witness the close cooperation between the Fed and the Treasury in rescuing Wall Street banks in 2008 – this could have come straight out of the Arthur Burns / Richard Nixon / Penn Central playbook. It’s not as if the Fed has much choice in the matter; see the last two paragraphs of this post for more.

# 3 A view reflected in ex-governor Mishkin’s recent comments on identifying bubbles, which I review here.

# 4 Actually, that’s sort of the point. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon; an increase in US inflation necessarily means a debasement of the currency, which is precisely what the US needs if it is to reduce its twin deficits.

Also, note that if China does boost domestic demand, revalue its currency or otherwise plug its trade surplus with the US, an immediate and necessary consequence would be a decline in Chinese buying of US Treasuries. And if China backs off, who will finance the US budget deficit? One more bearish indicator for bonds.

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