Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The idea that the US Treasury, or any government could be paid to borrow money is contrary to everything we've learned about finance and the time value of money. Yet, strange as it sounds, there are now 17 countries whose sovereign debt trade at negative yields, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France...well, you get the idea. Even 2-year sovereign debt of the Czech republic traded in negative yields this week.
As of this writing, the German 2-year bond is yielding -0.27%, while the 5-year was at - 0.11%. This means that an investor will accept -0.27% less of his principal investment back each year for the next two years, for the privilege of keeping money parked with the German government . When Swiss yields dropped below zero, everyone rolled their eyes, but reconciled the silliness with the idea that this was Switzerland where wealthy foreign investors, for reasons of safety, have stashed large sums of cash for generations. Swiss government bond yields are now negative out to ten years.
But yesterday's crossing of Japanese bond yields into negative space, has us really scratching our heads. After all, there as many highly informed, highly educated investors who believe that Japan's fiscal woes are unsolvable, as not. If repayment is in question, then how are investors being compensated for risk?
The question is, what's happened to credit spreads; the idea that each borrower's debt yield "spreads" to some "risk free" rate of interest, based upon credit-worthiness? With US credit ratings previously in question, the risk free rate has more recently shifted to Germany. And with the ECB now buying bonds of european central governments, many of these nations' debts are showing negative yields.
Bill Gross, the legendary bond king came out last week and argued that the German 10-year, currently at 0.16% is the short of a lifetime. Meaning, those investors betting that German yields will rise (and therefore the price will decline) stand to be handsomely rewarded. Far be it for us to disagree with any bond royalty, but in this case maybe not so fast.
What's far more interesting is the credit spread of the 10- UST to German bond, with UST now yielding 1.80% over the Bund (http://www.investing.com/rates-bonds/government-bond-spreads). By the way, if you're looking for something more juicy, take a look at the Brazillian 10-year, now yielding 12.60%. Wasn't it just a few years ago that all the talk was about the BRICs? Now, the Russian 10-year is at 11.20%, India at 7.66% and what did the "C" stand for again?
Getting back to the point. While German 10-year yields may be unsustainable at this level, shorting the Bund is a dangerous proposition. Remember John Maynard Keynes adage, "markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent". The more interesting trade is the US 10-year, now yielding a 25-year high relative to the Bund (ideally, you'd want to short the Bund and go long UST to play this trade, but a simple long position might be worth considering).
It's also interesting to consider what could cause this credit spread to widen. Negative economic news in the US? While theoretically, bad economic news should widen a spread to the risk free rate, such news would also cause interest rates more generally to decline (due to lower inflation risk) thereby improving the long trade. And good news? This might cause rates to rise, but in a compressed fashion by a tighter spread to the Bund. Thus, the ECB is effectively anchoring the yield of most developed world debt. This all suggests that the most likely scenario is that credit spreads narrow over time, lowering UST yields and boosting prices. Safer to be long the UST 10-year, than short the Bund.
As to the Fed and raising rates, we think the Fed is in a box for quite some time, the subject of a future post.