Hedge funds have played an instrumental role in this year’s rout in the US bond market by selling off more than $100 billion in Treasurys, according to a Bloomberg report.
Investors in the Cayman Islands, a major financial center and a known domicile for leveraged accounts, have been the biggest net sellers of US government debt, offloading $62 billion of sovereign bonds in February and dumping $49 billion in January, with Bloomberg citing data from the Treasury Department.
The sell-off began after the early January Senate run-off elections that were won by two Democrats. The victories gave that party a 51-vote majority in the upper house of Congress, including Vice President Kamala Harris, paving the way for a large new round of government fiscal spending. In March, President Joe Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that passed 51-50 in the Senate.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines also contributed to investors deciding to exit bonds. As bonds sold off, rising yields prompted a return of convexity-type hedging flows, Bloomberg reported.
The bond market sell-off this year drove the widely watched 10-year Treasury yield above 1.7% for the first time since early 2020. The yield has since pulled back to around 1.58%.
Experts are growing increasingly hopeful the US economy will rebound in 2021, but there’s a price to pay for that. The price of most things, actually.
A vaccine rollout, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and the lift in spending from December’s smaller stimulus paint a promising picture of a roaring, reopened America with lively restaurants, indoor dancing, and crowded stadiums. The economy is set for “stellar” growth as the pandemic subsides, a Bank of America note stated Monday, while boosting its 2021 GDP growth estimate to 6.5% from 6%.
It could all be the biggest boomtime in the US economy in a generation – but not without a cost.
While history indicates that the US likely won’t see an overheated economy after Biden’s massive stimulus package launches, Wall Street is predicting that certain goods and services might become more expensive.
JPMorgan’s David Kelly wrote in a recent bank note that high demand could “boost prices” across a range of services as the pandemic recedes over the summer, “maintaining inflation at or above” the Federal Reserve’s 2% target. And Mark Haefele, the chief investment officer of global wealth management at UBS, wrote on Tuesday that while fears about persistent rise in inflation are likely “overdone,” his bank is predicting that inflation may spike in the short-term.
“If pent-up demand emerges, prices could even rise above their pre-pandemic levels,” Brian Rose, senior economist at UBS Global Wealth Management, told Insider.
This may not be friendly news for Americans’ wallets, but higher prices and a demand for commodities without overheating is a sign of a healthier economy and a crucial next step toward the US’ economic recovery.
Rising Treasury yields – a famous barometer for future inflation – were in evidence this week, and Wall Street economists see signs that everyday essentials like houses, gas, and healthcare are about to get more expensive.
Stronger inflation? Treasurys say so
The Treasury market spoke up this past week. The 10-year yield, after steadily climbing through February, leaped as high as 1.614% on Thursday. The note now trades with its highest yield in more than a year, and President Joe Biden’s stimulus proposal is driving the economic optimism largely reponsible for this bond-market movement.
This matters because Treasury yields, especially in the 10-year, are an indicator of what investors think about the likelihood of inflation. It also matters because it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Investors have largely priced in the $1.9 trillion in relief set to be approved by Democrats in the next few weeks. Supporters argue a large-scale deal is needed to bring the economy back to its past strength. Republicans have voiced concerns that the package will overfill the hole in the economy and spark rampant price growth.
Markets, at least for now, are siding with the Democrats. Expectations for stronger inflation lifted yields as investors demanded higher returns to offset price growth. The continued rotation to cyclical assets – those most likely to outperform during a rebound – saw cash rotate from defensive investments and to riskier plays.
But rising yields have consequences. Since Treasurys serve as a benchmark for the broader credit market, higher yields signal regular payments on consumer loans will soon swing higher.
Rates on car loans, for example, closely track the 5-year yield, Kathy Bostjancic, head US financial market economist at Oxford Economists, told Insider. Those notes saw outsize selling through the week as investors bet on a sharp but temporary rise in inflation.
Higher yields can be the canary in the coal mine for commodity prices. Treasurys reveal how investors expect the economy to perform in the future, and those expectations can influence current spending activity. Since commodity markets focus so much on contracts for future sales and purchases, yields influence those forward price curves.
“Heating oil and natural gas could perhaps be a problem,” Bostjancic said.
To be sure, yields are far from flashing warning signs of rampant inflation. Real yields, which subtract inflation from bonds’ nominal yields, are still negative across all maturities. Though the 10-year yield sits near one-year highs, negative real yields suggest investors aren’t yet fearful of uncontrollable price growth.
In fact, real yields began turning negative in 2019, well before the pandemic roiled the US economy. The recent uptick in yields is a healthy development, but the pace risks shocking the financial system at a critical turning point, Bostjancic said.
“The bottom line is the 10-year and the yield curve could have a ways to run, and that’s not necessarily negative,” she said. “But if it happens too rapidly, then it can be destabilizing. It could choke off this nascent recovery before it gets going.”
Homes, gas, and healthcare
So, what does this all mean for Americans’ wallets?
Well, the answer largely depends on what Americans want to spend money on the most. A UBS note this week predicted that largely looks like entertainment, personal services, and education – all key drivers in the experience economy.
“The biggest price increases are likely to be seen as a rebound to normal levels in those services that have been hit hardest [by the] pandemic,” Rose said, citing airfare and hotel stays as examples.
Gas, too, is going to get expensive. A recent Jefferies note revealed the energy sector has already seen a 23.6% increase in CPI, a bigger uptick than any other industry, as cars increased in popularity during the pandemic. Oil prices increased from $40 per barrel last summer to nearly $60 per barrel at present and will likely stay that way through 2021, per the JPMorgan note.
A pandemic, naturally, has also driven health spending up. The healthcare sector has seen a 14.7% increase in CPI, per Jefferies, signaling that Americans will have to pay even more for health care than they already are.
Then, there’s housing. The market has been booming, but buying a house has become more expensive. Interest rates hit a historic low in 2020, but the higher treasury yields signal that may be about to change. As of Thursday, mortgage rates climbed back to their highest level since August.
Mortgage lenders will hike up rates for borrowers to compensate for higher yields as they trade mortgage-backed securities on the bond market. “The market is looking out two or three years and thinking that rates are going to rise,” Todd Johnson, a division manager in Wells Fargo’s mortgage unit, told The Financial Times.
More expensive, but in a good way
Since price increases will be driven by stronger demand, Rose said, it’s an “encouraging sign that the impact of the pandemic is waning and life is returning to normal.”
The Treasury market’s latest moves suggest the Democrats’ stimulus package will prompt a sharp but temporary rise in price growth. Where inflation settles in the long term depends on how well the labor market heals, Seema Shah, chief strategist at Principal Global Investors, told Insider.
The Fed has indicated it won’t raise rates until it sees progress toward full employment. Once inflation runs hot for a period and unemployment declines, the central bank will move toward tamping down on inflation with higher interest rates.
Judging by the Treasury market, nobody expects the US to face runaway price increases, Shah said.
“The market is saying growth is going to be higher, therefore labor-market slack is going to disappear a lot quicker than people were anticipating,” she said. “And therefore the Fed will actually hike earlier than expected, and by hiking earlier than expected, we’re not going to see inflation take off.”