Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Long-term Treasury Yields in 2011

Yesterday, I attempted to lay out how I thought 2011 would play out in terms of the value of the United States dollar. In “The U. S. Dollar in 2001” (http://seekingalpha.com/article/242766-the-u-s-dollar-in-2011) I argued that the general outlook for United States monetary and fiscal policy was more of the same policy stance that the United States government had taken for the last 50 years: credit inflation. (For more on this see the Financial Times/ Goldman Sachs business book of the year, “Fault Lines” by Raghu Rajan: http://seekingalpha.com/article/224630-book-review-fault-lines-how-hidden-fractures-still-threaten-the-world-economy-by-raghuram-g-rajan.)

The year 2011 will follow the pattern of large fiscal deficits and monetary ease and this will carry into the foreseeable future. As a consequence, the long term direction of the value of the United States dollar will be downward. I focus on this initially because this sets the stage for how financial market participants view the actions of the United States.

This downward movement, however, will be interrupted in the short run by the continued problems relating to the sovereign debt of various countries within the European Union. The United States, in 2011, will still be seen as a refuge from risk which will result in the dollar being supported by a “risk averse” investment community through much of 2011.

The turmoil in Europe is taking the pressure off of the policy makers in Washington, since they will be free of any criticism that might come their way because of a declining value of the dollar. As a consequence, the Obama administration will not need strong leadership to execute an “unpopular” monetary or fiscal policy: this was the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Paul Volcker, leading the Federal Reserve, put the brakes on the economy and the value of the dollar rose significantly; and Robert Rubin, leading the Treasury Department in the 1990s, helped to bring the federal budget from a deficit to a surplus, which produced another significant rise in the value of the dollar.

So, my basic expectation for the economy for the next year (and for the near future) is similar to that being called “the new normal”. The new normal incorporates sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, and weak inflation. (See “Champions of the ‘new normal’ stick to their guns,” http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b9c8a49e-0c5b-11e0-8408-00144feabdc0.html#axzz18l9xj6XV.)

The sluggish economic growth of the United States will remain around 3.0 percent to 3.5 percent, year-over-year, something way below what ordinarily has occurred in economic recoveries in the past. This modest growth rate under-scores the structural problems exhibited in the economy, the unusually low level of capacity utilization on the part of industry, the fact that the under-employment rate will remain in the 20 percent to 25 percent range as employers remain reluctant to bring back workers on a full time basis, and the fact that the year-over-year rate of growth of industrial production has been dropping off every month since June 2010.

I do see three ominous clouds on the horizon present in the financial sector. First, the solvency problems in the smaller commercial banks will continue to linger. As readers of this column know, I believe that the Quantitative Easing on the part of the Federal Reserve is more to keep the banking system afloat as the FDIC closes a sizeable number of banks over the next year or so. This will keep a lid on bank lending.

Second, there are the financial problems being experienced by state and local governments and these problems spill over into the financial markets for the bonds of these entities. The implications of this situation for the reduction in budges are huge.

Finally, large corporations have accumulated a huge chest of cash (both in the United States and Europe). It is my belief that this accumulation of cash is for “buying” purposes and we will see a sizeable pickup in mergers and acquisitions as the economic recovery continues. But, this restructuring of the economy will not create more jobs and increase production. In fact, it will do just the opposite. Large banks will also participate in this expansion of mergers and acquisitions. And, the big will get bigger.

Overall inflation will remain moderate. The year-over-year rate of increase in the implicit price deflator of gross domestic product remains around 1.0 percent and this probably will not go much above 1.5 percent this year, if it goes that high. Thus, general inflation does not seem to be a near-term problem.

However, given the current stance of monetary policy we see the possibilities of bubbles forming all over the place. (See “The Fed: Bubble, Bubble, Everywhere,” http://seekingalpha.com/article/240732-the-fed-bubble-bubble-everywhere.) As we saw over the past 25 years or so, general inflation was low and policy makers felt under control of things. Yet we saw bubbles here and bubbles there. Now, the actions of the Federal Reserve are being picked up in a rise in commodity prices, rising stock markets of emerging nations, and the buildup of inflationary pressures in export driven countries like China and Germany.

Putting this all together, my view of long term Treasury yields for 2011 is up, with the 10-year Treasury security reaching 4.5% to 5% in the upcoming year, a rise from around 3.3% to 3.5% now. The 30-year Treasury security will rise to the 5.5% to 6.0% range, up from around 4.4% to 4.5% now. The spread between the yields of these two maturities will be about 100 basis points, slightly lower than it is at the present time.

Bernanke will not be able to keep long-term interest rates down!

This just puts long term Treasury yields back at the levels they were for much of the 2000s.

From this, I argue that the long run expectation for inflation built into these securities would be in the 2.0 percent to 3.0 percent range. For myself, I find that this level of inflationary expectations over the next ten to thirty years is low. But, that is another story.

The major uncertainties in this picture? The first uncertainty pertains to the stability of the banking system. I believe, however, that the Federal Reserve will continue to flood the financial market with liquidity in order to allow the failing banks to be worked off in an orderly fashion. If this occurs, the recovery will continue but at a slow pace.

The second uncertainty pertains to state and local finance. My feeling is that the federal government will not allow this situation to get out of hand. Welcome to the bailouts of 2011.

The third uncertainty pertains to the bubbles that have been created or are being created. As we have learned, bubbles can last only so long. The question will remain about how long the bubbles created will last. Given that the Fed will continue to flood the market with liquidity, it is unlikely that the world will be bubble-free.

One thing mentioned above I believe will be an uncertainty only in timing. That is the increase in the amount of mergers and acquisitions taking place. I believe that 2011 will see a continuation in the acquisition splurge that has already started and will continue beyond this coming year. The only uncertainty related to this is the reaction of the federal government to the bigger companies. My guess is that the new Congress won’t challenge this and the Obama administration will not have the will to challenge it.

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