The Treasury Bubble in One Graph

What are the classic signs of an asset bubble? People piling into an asset class to such an extent that it becomes unprofitable to do so.

Treasury bonds are so overbought that they are now producing negative real yields (yield minus inflation):


That’s right, after taking into account inflation, many investors in treasuries are standing over a drain and pouring their money down it. 

And so America’s creditors are now getting slapped quite heavily in the mouth by the Fed’s easy money inflationist policies.

I propose (much, I am sure, to the consternation of the monetarist-Keynesian “print money and watch your problems evaporate” establishment) that this is a very, very, very dangerous position. And I propose that those economists who are calling for even greater inflation are playing with dynamite.

See, while the establishment seems to largely believe that the negative return on treasuries will juice up the American economy — in other words that “hoarders” will stop hoarding and start spending — I believe that negative side-effects from these policies may cause severe harm.

There is the danger of a bursting treasury bubble. What would happen if America’s creditors decide they want to liquidate their positions? After all, they’re getting slapped in the mouth , and the Fed is promising to continue with the zero interest rate policy until at least 2014.

And we know for sure that even before real rates on treasuries turned negative that China were selling:

The Fed has been picking up the slack, and will have to continue to do so for the forseeable future (the private domestic and international markets have no reason to increase purchases assets of with a negative real rate of return).

This means that to keep the Treasury’s interest payments low, the Fed will have to start printing more money, which brings us to the second danger: the danger of runaway inflation.

Bernanke might well believe he can do this without triggering runaway inflation. He might point to his track record of tripling the monetary base without triggering hyperinflation.

But inflation has stayed (relatively) low for one reason: the money he printed isn’t circulating. The primary dealer banks are holding the money as excess reserves. Can this last?

I doubt it. As I noted last month:

So, does the accumulation of excess reserves lead to inflation?

Only so much as the frequentation of brothels leads to chlamydia and syphilis.

Excess reserves are only non-inflationary so long as the banks — the people holding the reserves — play along with the Fed-Treasury game of monetising debt and trying to hide the inflation . The banks don’t have to lend these reserves out, just as having sex with hookers doesn’t have to lead to an infection.

But eventually — so long as you do it enough — the condom will break.

This trend of amassing excess reserves (done, lest we forget, as a stability measure to protect primary dealers against another shadow banking collapse) is closer to going to sleep upon a bed of dynamite. 

But inflation is only the most obvious risk.

The greatest danger is illustrated here:

America — for most of last century exporter and creditor to the world now runs the biggest trade deficits the world has ever seen.

Let’s not forget that these creditors that U.S. monetary policy is now slapping in the face produce most of our consumption, much of our military hardware, and most of our oil

Of course, many neocons seem to believe that this position is sustainable; that America can slap her creditors in the face all she likes because she has thermonuclear weapons and can tell the rest of the world to go and bite the big one.

Not so fast.

As VeteransToday noted in December:

“Surprise, Surprise, Surprise”,  to quote Gomer Pyle. The secret spy mission to create photographic proof of Iranian nuclear intentions has gone horribly wrong.

China is the country of origin for many, many of the semiconductors used by the US Military. It was most likely that China provided the hardware with the secret backdoor that allowed the Iranians to seize control of the Stealth drone while the drone was on a secret CIA mission over Iran.

Working together, they captured a state of the art US Military stealth aircraft.

What this means to all US Military personnel serving anywhere in the world? It means that control of any electronics system in any type of platform, can be seized and used against the military that launched it.

I don’t doubt America still has great technological and infrastructural advantages over her Eurasian creditor rivals. But do we really want to test the limits of our power? Do we really want to try and provoke a trade war with China and the other Eurasian nations (who of course are testing the petrodollar reserve to its limits by creating their own reserve currency agreements) by obliterating the value of their dollar-denominated assets?

So now we know, beyond a shadow of doubt that U.S. Treasuries are in a historic bubble.

We know that to some degree the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke are guilty of stoking up this program by buying U.S. Treasuries (artificial demand) and thus constricting supply. We know that this is screwing America’s creditors who happen to produce a lot of America’s consumption, components, military hardware, energy and resources. We know that these nations are using increasingly violent rhetoric regarding their relationship with the United States (Putin for instance described America as a parasite), and are activating agreements to ditch the dollar as the reserve currency.

Do we really want to continue in this vein? Do we really want to continue screwing our creditors by forcing them to accept negative real rates on their investments? Do we really want to risk the inflationary impact of continuing to print money to monetise debt (and hiding the money in excess reserves, thereby temporarily hiding the inflation). Do we really want to find out if all those Chinese semiconductors in our military hardware have backdoors that allow America’s enemies to shut down American military hardware?

I’d call that playing dice with the devil.

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It’s a Bubble?

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors agreed to pay the German government for the privilege of lending it money.

In an auction Monday, Germany sold €3.9 billion ($4.96 billion) of six-month bills that had an average yield of negative 0.0122%, the first time on record that yields at a German debt auction moved into negative territory.

This means that unlike most other short-term sovereign debt, in which investors expect to be repaid more than they lend, investors agreed to be paid slightly less. And they are willing to do that because they are so worried about the potential for big losses elsewhere.

The so-called safety of government paper is being eroded by the reality of negative real rates.

The same conundrum applies to America.

In theory, this is designed to try and force fearful investors into more productive assets.

But in reality the irresistible force of the printing press slams up against the immovable object of depressed demand. They have shoved and shoved and shoved this huge boulder, but the market hasn’t budged…

Levitated-Mass-Rock-boulder

The Biggest Bubble in History

Regular readers will be aware that I believe that American government debt (and by extension, cash) is in a once-in-a-century bubble.

A recent article from Bloomberg typified this ongoing (and quite hilarious) insanity:

The biggest bond gains in almost a decade have pushed returns on Treasuries above stocks over the past 30 years, the first time that’s happened since before the Civil War.
Fixed-income investments advanced 6.25 percent this year, almost triple the 2.18 percent rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index through last week, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. Debt markets are on track to return 7.63 percent this year, the most since 2002, the data show. Long-term government bonds have gained 11.5 percent a year on average over the past three decades, beating the 10.8 percent increase in the S&P 500, said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.

The combination of a core U.S. inflation rate that has averaged 1.5 percent this year, the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks near zero through 2013, slower economic growth and the highest savings rate since the global credit crisis have made bonds the best assets to own this year. Not only have bonds knocked stocks from their perch as the dominant long-term investment, their returns proved everyone from Bill Gross to Meredith Whitney and Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrong.

"I CAN'T SEE A WOOD?! ALL I SEE ARE TREES!"

When will the bond bubble end? It will end when the people and governments of the world tire of giving their pound of flesh to creditors. Creditors and debtors have fundamentally hostile interests — debtors want to take money without paying it back, and creditors want to take value without getting their hands dirty. A history of the world (the decline of Rome, the decline of Britain, the decline of America) is in some ways a history of hostility between creditors and debtors.

This hostility has been tempered (and conflict delayed) since the Keynesian revolution, by mass money printing. Everyone (except savers) wins — creditors get their pound of flesh (devalued by money printing), and debtors get the value of their debt cut by persistent inflation.

But there is an unwanted side-effect. Debt mounts & mounts:

And eventually, debt repayment means that “kicking the can” becomes “kicking a giant mountain of debt” — a very painful experience that necessitates either painful austerity, or huge money printing — neither of which encourage savings, or investment.

Europe, on the other hand, has decided to skip the can-kicking (“price stability, ja?“) and jump straight to the cataclysm of crushing austerity for debtor nations. Unsurprisingly, Greeks don’t like being told what they can and cannot spend money on. Surprisingly, the Greek establishment have decided to give the Greek people (debtors) a referendum on that pound of flesh Greece’s creditors (the global banking system) are so hungry for. Default — and systemic collapse — seems inevitable.

(UPDATE: Greece, of course, has undergone a Euro-coup and is now firmly under the control of pro-European technocrats — creditors will get their pound of flesh, and Greece will get austerity)

Some would say Europe has forgotten the lessons of Keynes — print money, kick the can, hope for the best. But really, the Europeans have just hastened the inevitable endgame every debtor nation faces. With a mountain of external debt crushing organic growth the fundamental choice is default, or default-by-debasement. That’s it.

And that is why, however elegantly America massages its problems, American government bonds are in a humungous bubble.