Over the last month the interest rate on a ten year, U.S. Treasury note has risen half a point. That may not sound like much in a market that has seen nothing but declines in Treasury yields for years, but investors fear it is simply the start of something big.
By now readers should know that we are in the ninth inning of a thirty year bull market in U.S. Treasury bonds. Everyone (including me) has been warning investors to liquidate their Treasury bond holdings. It is a case of when rates will rise (not if). No one knows exactly when that will happen, but why wait around until they do?
But many bond investors have stubbornly refused to listen. They are driven by fear. They are convinced that stock markets will retest their lows of 2009 on the back of another deep recession or worse. Clearly that has not happened yet (but “yet” for some is still the keyword).
However, as the economy continues to climb, unemployment falls and the Fed stimulates, more and more investors are re-thinking their safe-haven investments. It is the reason gold sold off so dramatically this year and, in my opinion, the same thing is beginning to happen in the Treasury market.
May’s spike in interest rates, however, has more to do with misplaced investor concerns that the Fed will begin to taper off its monthly bond purchases as early as June. They fear that with less Fed buying, bond prices will decline and interest rates will rise. This month that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think any talk of tapering off is premature at best and at worse, simply an excuse to take profits in both the stock and bond markets.
I do believe, however, that at some point the Fed will gradually reduce its buy program based on two factors: a stronger economy and a lower unemployment rate. Neither factor is anywhere near a level that would prompt the Fed to withdraw its’ stimulus even slightly. And when they do, it will be a good thing and no reason at all to sell stocks or even certain kinds of bonds.
Corporate bonds, for example, both investment grade and high yield, do quite well in an atmosphere of rising U.S. Treasury interest rates caused by stronger economic growth. In that environment, rising rates simply signal a more benign environment for corporations, which have less risk of bankruptcy and are better able to make their debt payments. For corporates, it is virtually the “sweet spot” for investment gains.
Many investors fail to understand that. They have been selling perfectly good, high yielding corporate bonds needlessly. So, by all means, cash in your Treasuries but keep your corporate bond investments. Sure, at some point, when interest rates rise enough, all bonds will be impacted but that time is still a year or two away.
As for the stock markets, this week was uneventful. We are entering the summer period where not much can be expected to happen. It is a period where Wall Street moves to The Hamptons or up North to the Berkshires. Hopefully, the markets will take the summer off as well. We are in need of a pause, one that will ultimately refresh this aging bull.